The Case for Carriage Criteria

One independent programmer, RFD-TV, is cheering a carriage deal that came after it was outspoken about possible harmful effects from big media mergers.

Another, Veria Living, is pleading with regulators to protect small networks — and invoking testimony from a third programmer, Back9 Network, to underscore that need.

The mergers of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and of AT&T and DirecTV, might well be headed for approval, with some kinds of conditions.

Small, independent programmers hope those conditions will make it easier for them to reach subscribers of those distributors, especially when survival will be hard without those huge audiences.

Veria Living CEO Eric Sherman — whose wellness-focused channel is not carried by any of the four big merging distributors — met last Wednesday (Sept. 10) with Federal Communications Commission officials, including general counsel Jonathan Sallet.

“They were very receptive to all of our concerns,” Sherman said.

Veria isn’t asking for a guaranteed channel slot, he said. “We’re just asking for a level playing field. What are the criteria that it takes to get carriage?”

He said FCC officials asked how the merging companies have dealt with his network recently. As it turned out, he had a complaint.

One of the parties involved, he said, had nearly wrapped up a Veria carriage agreement before pulling back and saying it wouldn’t be doing new carriage deals while its merger was pending.

“This was false, because this entity just announced a distribution arrangement with another network a couple days ago,” he said. “So they’re playing games, as someone with extended market power does.”

He said he couldn’t name names. But RFD-TV last Monday (Sept. 8) picked up a first-time launch agreement for carriage on AT&T U-verse’s 5.4 million homes.

RFD, as this space has noted, is actively — and effectively — campaigning for fair treatment by the four merging pay TV powers.

Founder Patrick Gottsch last week praised AT&T officials for, after the merger reviews started a few months ago, meeting with him and quickly reaching carriage terms after realizing a growing rural subscriber base would want RFD.

By contrast, Sherman noted that startup golf-lifestyle service Back9 Network’s then-CEO told Congress in April that Comcast officials he met with that week “made zero promises,” instead saying, “We’d like to keep an eye on you for the next 24 months.”

That’s not very helpful, coming from a distributor aspiring to be a leading pay TV provider in, some say, 28 of the top 30 media markets.

In approving the mergers, could the FCC require Comcast or AT&T to spell out for independent networks the criteria they need to meet obtain the carriage they need and earn the ad revenue they require to survive?

“Why not?” Sherman asked. “How else can independent voices in media be protected?”

Kent Gibbons

Kent has been a journalist, writer and editor at Multichannel News since 1994 and with Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He is a good point of contact for anything editorial at the publications and for Before joining Multichannel News he had been a newspaper reporter with publications including The Washington Times, The Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal and North County News.