Willner's Warning – Former Insight Chief Urges Caution on Regulatory Reform

Leave it to newly self-described "software guy" Michael Willner to stir up passions at NCTC and ACA‘s Indy Show in San Diego, advising small ops to tread carefully in their push for regulatory reform. "Washington can be a very dangerous place when you ask them to do things for you," said Willner, who ran Insight Comm before Time Warner Cable purchased it. He is now CEO of software vendor Penthera Partners. "It’s usually not with a scalpel, it’s with a cannon."

ACA has been lobbying aggressively for retrans reform, arguing that out-of-control programming costs are creating enormous strains on indies and also hurting consumers who ultimately pay the bills. But while Willner called "naive" the notion that the industry can control the outcome by asking for specific regulatory relief, he acknowledged that something must be done about spiraling content costs, lest consumers demand action. "That’s when things start to get shaken up," he said, and then "everybody’s going to lose." ACA pres/CEO Matt Polka told us after the panel that his members have no choice because the model is broken. "It’s not necessarily that they want to go to D.C.," he said. "They have to go to protect their interests." As for unintended consequences, Polka said that’s always a possibility, but "sometimes you have to take a risk."

In ACA’s morning panel, lawyer Barbara Esbin of Cinnamon Mueller said the trick is "go in with a targeted, credible ask that’s supported by data and analysis" as one way to "minimize unintended consequences." Tom Cohen of Kelly, Drye & Warren said ACA’s stellar reputation on Capitol Hill also helps immensely. "ACA is known for certain things," he said. "It’s known for highly credible advocacy. It’s known for understanding how to play—when to push and when not to push." He said the key is to stay in the game: "You need to keep doing it, because if you’re not then everybody else is… You just have to keep at it."

Esbin noted the challenges of getting the FCC to act on retrans. "They see deals getting done, and they don’t see the pain and suffering behind them," she said, noting that the FCC declined to build retrans reform into the recently circulated media ownership proceeding—while the existing retrans proceeding has "stalled" during the FCC’s transition to a new chmn. One ray of hope, however, is that patience is wearing thin in Congress, said Jared Weaver of the Alpine Group. "The blackouts have not helped the broadcasters," he said. "Frankly, I think the broadcasters are losing some credibility." Still, lawmakers have friends on both sides of the issue, and it’s difficult to sponsor a bill "that eviscerates one of your friends," he said. A blackout stemming from the current wrangling between CBS and Time Warner Cable, for example, could be yet another reminder to policymakers. "I wouldn’t say there’s a sea change, but there’s certainly momentum," Weaver said.

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