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Allbritton to FCC: Force Shentel to Restore WJLA Station to Virginia Customers

Allbritton Communications has asked the FCC to force Shentel Telecommunications to restore its WJLA Washington to some 8,200 Virginia customers.

In an emergency petition to the FCC, a copy of which was supplied to B&C, Allbritton said the cable operators did not bargain in good faith, and withdrew a retransmission consent offer after Allbritton accepted it.

Shentel stopped airing the station Jan. 1, with a note to viewers that it had been "forced to drop the  station from our cable line-ups...Shentel has tried to negotiate in good faith with the management of this television station to agree on a fair price for their programming. Negotiations have failed..."

But Allbritton told the FCC that Shentel had dropped the signal "despite ABC affiliate WJLA's acceptance [emphasis Allbritton's] of Shentel's offer on the table."

Allbritton wants the FCC to force Shentel to put the station back on its system and on the terms it said Shentel offered and Allbritton agreed on.

"We at Shentel believe that the statement of the facts and interpretation of the law made by WJLA in the complaint is incorrect and we will respond appropriately to the FCC," said David Ferguson, a retrans consultant to Shentel and former VP of customer service for the company.  Asked about WJLA's assertion that Shentel put an offer on the table that the company rejected, he said: "Again, that statement is incorrect.

Affected Shentel viewers in Shenandoah County, and Petersburg, Va., can still get ABC network programming via a significantly viewed out-of-market station, but do not have access to WJLA syndicated fare like Anderson [Cooper], Rachel Ray, and the Wall Street Journal Report, WJLA pointed out.

"Shentel proposed retransmission consent terms and, when Allbritton accepted those terms, Shentel withdrew the offer, dropped WJLA-TV with insufficient notice, and has refused Allbritton's further efforts to Negotiate," said Allbritton in the petition, adding: "If Shentel's actions in this case don't constitute bad faith negotiations, then the Act and the Commission's rules provide no effective protection for parties seeking in good faith to negotiate retransmission consent."

The FCC currently has an open proceeding in which it has proposed to clarify what constitutes good faith bargaining in retransmission consent deals.

Allbritton and Cox were in high-profile and tough negotiations for carriage over the holidays, including Cox warnings the WJLA signal might be dropped. But they struck a deal, as did Allbritton with the other MVPD distributors of its TV stations. "We were able to reach retransmission agreements with every other distributor across our seven markets," said Allbritton SVP Jerald Fritz, and with no loss of signals anywhere else, he pointed out.

"These deals typically go down to the last minute, and virtually all are resolved." That is a point broadcasters have been making a lot recently in the face of complaints to the FCC by cable operators over retrans impasses. "This was unusual," said Fritz.