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Circle City, NABOB Sue Dish Over Retrans Impasse

African American-owned television station owner Circle City Broadcasting and the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters have taken Dish Network to court, filing a suit in U.S. District Court in Indiana claiming discrimination by the satellite TV distributor, who they claim has refused to properly negotiate retransmission consent deals with minority-owned broadcasters.

The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in Indianapolis, claims that Dish has refused to carry stations owned by Circle City Broadcasting (CW affiliate WISH-TV and MyNetworkTV affiliate WNDY-TV in Indianapolis), despite having carried the properties when they were owned by white companies.

“We intend to vigorously defend ourselves against these baseless claims,” Dish said in a statement.

Circle City purchased the stations from Nexstar Broadcast Group in April 2019 for $42.5 million. The sale was part of several such deals Nexstar made to divest stations to gain regulatory approval for its purchase of Tribune Media.

According to the suit, Dish had paid retransmission consent fees to Nexstar for its stations, including WISH-TV and WNDY-TV, in the past, but once the properties were sold, the satellite giant’s attitude changed.

Circle City claims that Dish’s refusal to pay retrans fees for its stations reflects an industry-wide discriminatory policy against minority-owned stations, “paying the non-minority broadcasters significant fees to rebroadcast their stations and channels while offering practically no fees to the historically disadvantaged broadcaster or programmer for the exact same or superior programming.” And it claimed, “there are extreme instances where Dish is not offering to carry minority channels at all,” using African-American owned cable, radio, syndication, web and marketing company Urban One as an example.

Included in the exhibits to the suit is a letter from Urban One chairman and CEO Alfred Liggins III to the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to consider Dish’s “questionable track record in the area of diversity,” when it evaluated the satellite company’s role in the T-Mobile-Sprint merger. As part of that deal, Dish agreed to purchase about 9.3 million Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile prepaid wireless accounts, many of which are owned by minority customers.

“Urban One urges the Commission to ensure that their interests will not be harmed by the acquisition by Dish,” Liggins III wrote.

Circle City claims that shortly after it closed on its purchase of stations from Nexstar, Dish offered retrans rates that were a “tiny fraction” and “pennies on the dollar” of what the stations had been receiving in the past. Dish, Circle City claims, refused to negotiate with the station owner, “effectively hobbling Circle City’s ability to serve its market.”

Circle City owner and CEO DuJuan McCoy said in the suit that the stations offered to operate under the same retrans deal as the previous owner, but that Dish also refused.

“Dish has now publicly accused me of demanding unprecedented rates for the stations,” McCoy wrote in a letter to the FCC included in the suit.

He added that Circle City had managed to secure new retrans agreements with major distributors in their coverage area, including Comcast and Charter. But it has had worse luck with satellite operators -- DirecTV has been without the stations since Jan. 31  and Dish has not carried the stations since Oct. 4. 

Circle City is suing for retransmission fees at a fair market rate, actual and punitive damages, interest, reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, according to the suit.