Pay TV A Backer Of Public Knowledge
Public Knowledge, a media industry watchdog group, solicited and accepted more than $650,000 from industry companies and associations last year, while lobbying in favor of positions that some of its backers support — a practice that critics say undermines the organization’s credibility.
“Public Knowledge pretends to be a public interest group, but it’s primarily an advocacy group supported by certain segments of the industry, including cable and wireless,” said Jack Goodman, a former general counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters.
But PK backers told TVNewsCheck that the group’s industry donors play no role in decisions about what policy positions the organization pursues, and that the group demonstrates its independence by opposing as well as supporting its donors’ interests at times.
The group’s fundraising is on the broadcasting industry’s radar because Public Knowledge has been lobbying against broadcasters on some key issues, while simultaneously raising money from broadcasting’s opponents, PK’s records confirm.
Public Knowledge, for instance, has been lobbying in favor of retransmission consent reform. PK’s records show, however, that it received more than $100,000 in donations from pay TV industry proponents of retrans reform last year, including contributions of at least $25,000 apiece from pay TV giants Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and Dish Network.
The FCC’s retransmission consent regulations, which allow broadcasters to charge pay TV companies for retransmitting broadcast signals, are strongly supported by the broadcast industry.
Retrans payments have become an increasingly important revenue source for broadcasters. In fact, the payments are projected by industry analyst SNL Kagan to reach $4.3 billion this year, and $7.6 billion by 2019.
Also contributing about $10,000 apiece to PK’s $2 million war chest last year were retrans reform proponents Cablevision Systems and Charter Communications, according to PK’s records. In addition, retrans reform advocates Verizon and the American Cable Association chipped in another $5,000 apiece, the records show. NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, still another reform advocate, contributed about $2,500.
Along with promoting reform on its own, Public Knowledge is a partner of the American Television Alliance, a pay TV industry-backed lobbying group that has been pressing for retrans reform. TWC, DirecTV, and other contributors to PK’s warchest, are also ATVA members.
The pay TV industry and PK are arguing that the regulations are anti-consumer.
Public Knowledge, according to its records, also accepted contributions of at least $25,000 apiece during 2013 from Google, AT&T, the Consumer Electronics Association and other major industry players that have been vigorously promoting the FCC’s plan to repurpose broadcast spectrum with an incentive auction next year, a process that many broadcasters would prefer to stall. PK has been lobbying in favor of the auction.
In addition, during 2103, Public Knowledge, according to its donor list, also accepted a contribution of about $5,000 from Aereo — a company PK has been promoting as pro-consumer.
Aereo, which has been vehemently opposed by broadcasters, was trying to build a business out of retransmitting broadcast TV signals online, until the Supreme Court recently stepped in and ruled that the service was illegally ripping off broadcast signals.
Another tidbit of interest to broadcasters is that Michael Petricone, CEA’s top lobbyist, has a seat on PK’s board.
CEA, one of PK’s top industry donors in 2013, is also one of the broadcasting industry’s more influential critics.
Kimmelman, who stepped in as PK’s CEO earlier this year, told TVNewsCheck that he didn’t know how Petricone got on the board. A CEA spokeswoman said Petricone got the nod because “he has expertise on policy issues impacting innovators and consumers.”
Said Petricone: “Neither CEA nor anybody else in Washington tells PK what to do.”
Said former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, one of PK’s original board members: “At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself ... are these people [Kimmelman and Gigi Sohn, PK’s previous CEO and founder] who can be bought? And the answer is absolutely not. Anybody who knows them would know that.”
Added former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who currently sits on PK’s board: “Gene Kimmelman is as independent and straight a shooter as you will find, and he's used to saying what's on his mind and following through on that. I like to think I have that reputation, too, and if ever I found a public interest board that I thought was kowtowing to donor pressure, it and I would quickly part company.”
While some watchdog groups, like PK, accept at least some industry donations, other major watchdog groups — including Consumers Union, Common Cause and Free Press — refuse to accept corporate money to avoid conflicts of interest.