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Bully in the Pulpit

Maybe it is just the retransmission kabuki dance everybody has come to expect. As negotiations dragged on toward New Year's Day bowl games, legislators and regulators started waving their big sticks. That included Congress pressuring the FCC to step in if a deal was not done.

But the FCC did not take any official action because the parties struck a deal, or came up with a way to extend without losing too much face. In Fox's case, a de facto extension dressed up as “remaining on while we remain at the table” led to a tentative deal.

Maybe that is how the negotiations would have played out without Washington's “help.” Perhaps the spirit of the season would have overtaken both sides, and over at the other table, Sinclair would have taken a little off its fastball in service to Mediacom viewers with foam fingers and condiment dispensers on their dachshunds.

Let's face it: In some sense, the John Kerrys of the world are making broadcasting's case for them. We clearly must be talking about valuable programming if senators and FCC chairmen have to be all but in the negotiations themselves, pushing broadcasters in particular to spare constituents the pain of missing football games.

Sen. Kerry all but claimed credit for the Fox-Time Warner deal, and both he and the FCC made no secret about the fact that their staffs were in almost constant contact with representatives of the negotiations.

If there is something wrong with the retransmission consent system, as many in Washington claim, one of the big problems is government's close association with it. Let's not kid ourselves that this was the marketplace working out its own problems, as all those press releases out of D.C. suggested. The next time some legislator or regulator celebrates the industry's independent resolution of some issue, remember the past three weeks and the drumbeat of action that eventually pounded the parties into submission.

If the FCC had determined that the negotiations were not in good faith and had taken steps to correct the process, that would have been something completely different. But it took no action on Mediacom's “emergency petition,” which the company filed more than two months ago. Talk about communications problems for emergency response.

Washington may celebrate its bully pulpit in these and other “dispute resolutions” between free and independent businesses—just look at the parade of Comcast deals and settlements getting done before its “mother may I's” at the FCC and FTC/Justice.

We must even part company with the former senator and now NAB President Gordon Smith, who praised the Fox-Time Warner deal as a “fair, market-based process.” Perhaps, but with the government over everyone's shoulder, we can never be sure.