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NCTA breaks from Comcast with support for 'examination of retransmission consent regime'

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After years of remaining neutral in disputes between pay TV distributors and broadcasters involving retransmission-consent fees, the National Cable Television Association said Thursday that it supports proposed legislation that could impact Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA), its largest member.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D.- Calif.) introduced a bill on Thursday that she said would "put an end to broadcast television blackouts and ensure consumers aren't held hostage by a dispute they have no control over." Separately, Rep. Steve Scalise (R.-La.) reintroduced a bill that calls for the repeal of several regulations, including retransmission-consent and media ownership rules.

"The bills introduced today by Reps. Eshoo and Scalise are very different, but each independently highlights what is quickly becoming a growing consensus--namely, that laws enacted over twenty years ago are out of sync with the realities of today's video marketplace and in many cases serve to inhibit innovation, thwart fair competition, and harm consumers," NCTA CEO Michael Powell said in a prepared statement. "In particular, we welcome an examination of a retransmission consent regime that is increasingly fractured and in need of some repair. We look forward to working with these members, and all members of the committee, as Congress considers responsible reforms," the former FCC chairman added.

Since Comcast struck a $13.8 billion deal to acquire NBC Universal in 2011, which made it one of the nation's largest owners of TV stations, NCTA hasn't taken a stance in debates about retransmission-consent reform. Its members include both cable operators and programmers. Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), NCTA's second largest member, has been leading the charge for retransmission-consent reform through the formation of the American Television Alliance, which includes cable MSOs and rival distributors such as DirecTV (Nasdaq: DTV) and Verizon.

Comcast VP of Government Communications Sena Fitzmaurice said in a prepared statement late Friday that the company remains aligned with NCTA on their approaches to public policy. 

"While there may sometimes be different public policy approaches on particular issues between programmer and operator members of NCTA, all of NCTA's members share a strong interest in growing the overall cable ecosystem and ensuring that there is a legislative and regulatory environment to encourage innovation, investment, and delivery of leading products, services, and content to our customers," Fitzmaurice said in an email to FierceCable. "As both a programmer and an operator, Comcast NBCUniversal is well positioned to play a constructive role within NCTA and in the ensuing public policy debates on telecom reform, and we look forward to working with NCTA and the entire industry to accomplish our mutual objectives, including ensuring that broadcasters remain incented to make future investments in content," she added. 

NCTA's position could appease some of its cable MSO members who don't own TV stations. There have also been calls in recent months from legislators such as Sen. John McCain (R- Ariz.) for new laws that would compel multichannel providers to offer consumers a la carte programming choices, which could hurt both distributors and programmers. By announcing its support for an examination of retransmission-consent rules, NCTA may be looking to prevent more sweeping legislation and possible scrutiny of the industry from the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division.

Time Warner Cable issued a statement within minutes of the statement that was issued by NCTA, using similar language. "While the bills take different approaches to addressing the broken retransmission consent system, it is clear that both Democrats and Republicans recognize the escalating harm to consumers," the MSO said. 

For more:
- see NCTA's statement
- see this release from Rep. Eshoo
- see this release from Rep. Scalise
- see this statement from American Cable Association
TVNewscheck has this story

Related articles:
Retrans debate widens rift between operators and programmers on NCTA board
Why Time Warner Cable and Charter may not be ready to quit NCTA
Burke: Distributors should be paying 20-25% more for NBCU cable networks
Eshoo bill triggers retransmission-consent showdown

Article updated on Dec. 16, adding statement from Comcast.