FCC Denies Retransmission Complaint Against Sinclair

The FCC's Media Bureau has denied a retransmission consent complaint against Sinclair by cable operator Mediacom, setting up the possibility that some 700,000-800,000 cable subs could lose access to TV station signals starting Friday, Jan. 5, on the eve of the NFL playoffs.

Mediacom says it will appeal to the full commission.

The two biggest markets involved are Des Moines and Cedar Rapids Iowa, where Mediacom is the dominant cable player and Sinclair has Fox and CBS stations that will be carrying both NFL playoffs and the college championship game over the next week.Mediacom had argued that Sinclair was not bargaining in good faith over carriage of 22 of its TV station signals in markets where MediaCom has cable systems. The stations include 13 affiliates of the major networks and nine stations either CW affiliates or currently unaffiliated. Sinclair told Mediacom Sept. 28 it was terminating carriage Dec. 1, 2006, over their failure to agree to a price for the stations, but that date was pushed to January 5 through private negotiations. Sinclair wants something comparable to what MediaCom pays for cable nets with ratings similar to those of its TV stations. The FCC said that sounded OK with it. "Sinclair’s desire to receive appropriate compensation from Mediacom for carriage of its signals is consistent with the framework for retransmission consent established by Congress in Section 325 of the Communications Act and does not appear to be unreasonable," the FCC's Media Bureau wrote in denying the complaint.The commission also said the evidence suggested Sinclair was asking for prices "at or below" that of comparably rated cable nets, though it redacted the prices.But with cable subs now receiving those 22 stations facing the loss, at least in terms of wired delivery, of some popular network programming--including the upcoming NFL playoffs--the FCC said Thursday that it would like the two sides to submit to arbitration by its Media Bureau, and if they agreed would require Sinclair to allow MediaCom to carry the stations while the Media Bureau was resolving the issue.It was only a suggestion by he FCC, but a forceful one. With the denial of the Mediacom complaint, "our formal involvement in this dispute is ended," said the FCC. "Nevertheless, we strongly encourage the parties to engage in hard bargaining to achieve an agreement." Sinclair's Web site, www.sbgi.net, featured a link labeled: "Find out why Mediacom may not be carrying Sinclair Stations after January 5, 2006," where affected viewers were encouraged--and even offered incentives--to switch to DirecTV.
Sinclair has a deal with DirecTV that pays it for every new sub it refers to the company.
Sinclair General Counsel Barry Faber said the company was pleased that the FCC supported its position and would seriously consider the request to submit to arbitration. But it has also warned Mediacom subs--via on-screen crawls--that they may lose cable access to the Sinclair stations and encouraging them to sign up with satellite. "What you don't want is to have people wake up Saturday morning expecting to see an NFL playoff game and its not just there without any warning."
Faber said the company has been in contact with Mediacom as recently as Thursday, but said "the parties are so far apart that I don't hold very much hope out for reaching any kind of agreement by tomorrow."
Mediacom said it thought the FCC had gotten it wrong, but said it favored binding arbitration. "

“We are disappointed with the Media Bureau’s decision, which is against the best interests of Mediacom customers and has far-reaching consequences to television viewers all over America,” said Mediacom Chariamn/CEO Rocco B. Commisso in a statement. “However, we are pleased that the Bureau strongly encouraged the parties to submit to binding arbitration and to continue carriage of the stations. We offered this solution to Sinclair over a month ago, but they refused.
"We are committed to binding arbitration and are hopeful Sinclair will heed the Bureau’s recommendation and avoid a disruption in service to our customers.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.