Rockefeller announces online video bill

November 12, 2013

Good news for anyone who gripes about cable subscriptions that make them pay for shows they don’t watch: Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is on your side.

On Tuesday, Rockefeller introduced the “Consumer Choice in Online Video Act,” which aims to provide more consumer choice in video by ensuring that legacy media and cable companies don’t stifle the growth of online video distributors such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Instant Video.

In a statement, Rockefeller drew a parallel between the growth of online video providers today and the growth of satellite providers in the 1990s, saying that these new firms should enjoy the same protections as satellite providers. Granting those protections, he said, is a boon for consumers.

“We have all heard the familiar complaint that we have five hundred channels, but there is nothing to watch,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “My legislation aims to enable the ultimate a la carte – to give consumers the ability to watch the programming they want to watch, when they want to watch it, how they want to watch it, and pay only for what they actually watch.”

In addition to those protections, the bill also sets ground rules for how companies negotiate “carriage agreements,” which determine when and how online video companies can offer certain shows and movies in their catalogs.

Under the proposal, broadband providers would also be restricted from putting limits on Internet connections that could degrade the quality of online video services. That provision aims to defuse worries that Internet service providers affiliated with cable or satellite providers might create policies that hinder online video companies such as Netflix. The bill also tasks the Federal Communications Commission with monitoring broadband Internet service billing practices to make sure that consumers understand exactly how much they’re paying for cable and Internet.

Rockefeller is not the first politician to address the common consumer complaint that the existing cable model doesn’t serve their needs. In May, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed a bill to compel cable companies to offer channels on an a la carte basis.

Americans are increasingly watching video through their computers and mobile devices — and, in some cases are opting to replace their cable subscriptions altogether with online video services. In March, Nielsen reported that there are now about 5 million “zero TV” households -- who don’t have a cable subscription -- in the United States.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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