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ACA Backs Pai Request

As FCC's Pai, NAB's Smith Seek Pause in TV Blackouts, Some MVPDs on Board

Some communications stakeholders are on board with calls to halt retransmission consent blackouts for the next 60 days during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuesday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai made such a request, and ACA Connects quickly endorsed it. NAB CEO Gordon Smith in Q&A with us Wednesday made a similar request and supported broadcasters doing their part. After he spoke, some cable operators made similar comments.

"It’s important that everyone work together during this difficult time," an NCTA spokesman emailed us. "Members will continue to work cooperatively with broadcasters during this emergency to avoid any disruption of programming to our customers.” Cox Communications will "work with programmers to make sure no signals are pulled during this time of crisis," its spokesperson emailed. Comcast said similar.

Communications challenges posed by the coronavirus prompted Smith to seek help from cable and satellite TV providers and social media (see 2003180030). He wants social media platforms to work with broadcasters to combat what he called fake news. He said the platforms can also work with newspapers on such an initiative.

"Broadcasters don’t want to see service interruptions of any kind," Smith said Wednesday in a C-SPAN interview for The Communicators, answering our questions. "Hopefully, our friends on the cable and satellite side will kind of stand down." In past crises, TV stations have a "history of doing that and I have no reason to believe that won’t continue," Smith said. The interview will be posted here and televised.

Pai had urged TV stations to work with MVPDs to avoid retrans disruptions during the next 60 days, and asked broadcasters to air public service announcements featuring celebrities plugging social distancing. In a conference call Monday, the FCC said, Pai "asked broadcasters to work with cable and satellite operators to avoid service disruptions during the next 60 days, such as by agreeing, if necessary, to short-term extensions to expiring retransmission consent agreements." FCC spokespeople declined to comment Wednesday.

ACA Connects endorsed Pai’s "suggestion that broadcasters and MVPDs work to maintain a 'quiet period' to avoid disruption during this national emergency. We will ask our members to respect this quiet period and expect that they will do so." The small-cable operator group didn't comment further Wednesday. AT&T, owner of DirecTV, and Dish Network didn't comment, nor did Altice or Charter Communications.

Smith's point is "broadcasters will be reasonable in these situations, and he hopes/expects the pay-TV providers to do the right thing, too," his spokesperson emailed us later. The representative cited Dish and Cox Media Group suspending a blackout.

Dish restored CMG's Northwest Broadcasting two dozen-plus stations, it announced Tuesday. Dish "is committed to ensuring that our customers have access to critical local news coverage regarding COVID-19,” said Senior Vice President-Programing Andy LeCuyer in a statement. CMG didn't comment Wednesday.

The American Television Alliance consortium of pay-TV operators, with members including many major MVPDs like AT&T, is "mindful of the unprecedented situation facing our country," emailed ATVA Executive Director Mike Chappell. "We trust the broadcasters will join us in doing what we can to protect the public.” AT&T had referred us to ATVA.

Fox began offering Fox News Channel and the company's TV stations free. "Partnering with our pay-TV partners," the programmer will make the channel and stations "available to all of their customers, regardless of their specific package, at no additional fee," it announced. The company will stream that content for free. It's "partnering with the Ad Council" and NAB to "air public service announcements about coronavirus across our platforms.” Pai seeks that from all broadcasters. Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott and Fox Television Stations Chief Jack Abernethy thanked "our distribution partners, who played an important role in helping make" the "news sources available more broadly.”

NAB Show

The spreading virus had prompted NAB to cancel its annual show in Las Vegas, which Smith Wednesday described as a "huge loss." The association is "going to do our best to replace that week’s time with a digital platform," Smith said of the convention. He forecast an "enhanced NAB Show New York in October, where our attendees can kind of kick the tires of new technology and content ideas."

The association is "calculating the impact" from not going forward with NAB Show, which Smith noted usually gets about 100,000 attendees in some million square feet. The "agonizing" decision was made "before there was tremendous insistence by the government that [Americans] cancel" such gatherings, Smith said. Our report on the cancellation is online in front of our pay wall, where we have put some of our other coverage of the epidemic.

NAB staff is teleworking even as the group is moving its headquarters from Washington's Dupont Circle area to the neighborhood where the Nationals play baseball, Smith said: The relocation is "on track." The move to "the new building is slated for April 6," when it "will be ready to enter," the spokesperson emailed. "We’ll be monitoring the coronavirus situation between now and April 6 to determine if the actual move-in is appropriate, or whether an extension of telecommuting is warranted for the time being."

Smith would have asked Pai on stage during NAB Show questions including about ownership restrictions that don’t apply to social media platforms, the trade group executive said. "We do need scale to compete with these new entrants in communications." He thinks "it's in the interest of social media to have relationships that have economic value" and include broadcasters and newspapers "to get localism. They need to [increase] the integrity of their platforms." He would like to see "a more earnest effort" than tech companies have made. He said "a lot of falsehoods" and "slanders occur" and "spread like a virus" online.

Many News Media Alliance member newspapers "have lifted subscriber paywalls and have developed special, free coronavirus-related newsletters," emailed Senior Vice President-Public Policy Paul Boyle. "Digital readership is up about 30 to 50% from this time last year." It's "not necessarily translating into dollars as advertisers are beginning to pull back," he noted.

The Internet Association, Facebook, Google and Twitter didn't comment on working with newspapers and broadcasters.