The FCC tracks the complaints it receives about various services under is oversight, including television, radio, and telephone. In the third quarter of 2011, complaints about cable and satellite services increased more than 15% over the prior quarter, though it is worth noting that the number of complaints about “billing and rates” issues were essentially flat with only a 1.5% increase. The billing and rate complaints still accounted for the largest portion of all complaints, with more than one third of the total.
Perhaps the canary in this coalmine are the numbers for “Satellite Television Extension & Localism Act” complaints. This category bloomed by nearly 44% over the prior quarter. Behind the esoteric title lies a festering problem in the television industry: retransmission rights. Subscription television services have to license the content from local broadcast stations, and cannot negotiate with a station outside the local market for the same content. Broadcasters — and their networks — are looking to replace revenues lost in other areas, and see cable and satellite subscribers as a worthy source. So they withhold their content until they get the fees that they want. The result can be a blackout for the subscribers until the negotiations are settled. In some cases, the blackouts can last weeks or even months. Senator John Kerry weighed in when it appeared that DirecTV subscribers in Boston might not get the SuperBowl, and other retransmission disputes are drawing high-profile attention as well. Expect this to be a controversial issue throughout 2012.
And just to keep this in perspective, all of the cable and satellite complaints combined did not equal half the complaints received about broadcast television. So we can rest assured that there are still people watching the over-the-air channels.