Chairman Rockefeller's Remarks on Television Viewers, Retransmission Consent, and the Public Interest

November 17, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Television is a powerful force. But I believe the system we have for developing television content, packaging that content, and distributing it to consumers is broken. It may serve companies well. But it does not serve us well as consumers. And I believe it serves us even less well as citizens. Let me explain why.

When it comes to developing content, our entertainment machine is too often in a race to the bottom. Even worse, our news media has all but surrendered to the forces of entertainment. Instead of a watchdog that is a check on the excesses of government and business, we have the endless barking of a 24-hour news cycle. We have journalism that is always ravenous for the next rumor, but insufficiently hungry for the facts that can nourish our democracy. As citizens, we are paying a price.

When it comes to packaging content, why do consumers have to order so many channels? Why do we have to pay for so many when our households watch so few? The old adage of 500 channels and nothing on has never been so true as it is today.

When it comes to delivering content, why do we pay so much? The Federal Communications Commission tells us that from 1995 to 2008 the average monthly price of popular cable service increased more than three times the rate of inflation. No wonder consumers are cutting the pay television cord in record numbers. They are turning back to over-the-air television and turning on to programming over the Internet. They are tired of paying rates that go up so much every single year.

In our hearing today, we do not get at the root of these problems. That is a broader discussion that we need to have. Indeed, it is a conversation that we owe to the citizens of this country. But today’s hearing is important and timely because we make a good faith effort to address one of the symptoms of these broader concerns. We will talk about retransmission consent.

This is a policy that allows local broadcasters to negotiate with cable and satellite companies for carriage of their local stations. When it works, consumers see their local broadcast stations on their cable and satellite systems. But when it fails, consumers are saddled with dark screens and denied access to local news and sports programming. This is what happened to millions of television viewers in New York who turned on their sets to watch the World Series—but were stuck without service.

So let me caution our witnesses today: if you fail to fix this situation, we will fix it for you. But when we do, we will seek to do more than referee your corporate disputes. Because more than just retransmission consent ails our television markets. We need new catalysts for quality news and entertainment programming. We need slimmed down channel packages that better respect what we really want to watch. And we need to find ways to provide greater value for television viewers at a lower cost. Because people are tired of always escalating rates.

Thank you to our witnesses for being here today. In closing, let me also say that I appreciate the interest Senator Kerry has shown regarding retransmission consent. I thank him for his willingness to lead this hearing today.