Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) has written FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to stick up for Gray Television's WWSB-TV Sarasota, Florida, in a retrans fight with Frontier Cable.
Citing a failure to reach a retransmission agreement with Frontier, WWSB-TV used some in-house news reporting last week to relay that it had been pulled from the cable system Friday (Dec. 18) after WWSB offered to keep the signal on at current terms while they continued to negotiate.
In the WWSB reports, VP and GM Jeff Benninghoff said: “I am absolutely stunned. In all my 27 years in local media, I have never even heard of a cable operator just dropping a station when it was offered a no-strings-attached extension to work things out."
Actually, cable operators have been known not to agree to extending the same terms beyond a contract's expiration when they are asking for more money.
Robert Folliard, III, SVP of government relations for Gray, said that the broadcaster filed a good-faith complaint against Frontier Dec. 18 after it dropped Gray in three markets "despite Gray granting Frontier an extension until December 31, 2020 to give the parties time to continue to negotiate an agreement."
The complaint asserted that Frontier appeared never to have intended to carry the stations after the contract expired Dec. 18. "Instead, it just strung Gray along for weeks making us believe progress was being made until informing Gray with less than an hour to go that Frontier’s negotiator actually had no authority to enter into an agreement on the terms she had most recently offered to us and in fact she could not agree to terms along the lines of any of the proposals she had made over the last several weeks."
If the lead negotiator had no power to negotiate, Frontier could hardly be negotiating in good faith, which would violate FCC rules.
Frontier saw it differently.
"Until our contract with the programmer expired, Frontier worked hard to negotiate a fair deal. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach an agreement," said Javier Mendoza, VP of corporate communications and external affairs for Frontier. "No provider is immune from network negotiations and programming removals; and other providers also face the continual need to reassess their channel and content lineup."
But Buchanan expressed concerns about the Florida station's absence from the lineup.
In a letter Tuesday (Dec. 22), Buchanan said that he was concerned about the "blackout" of the local TV station and the importation of ABC affiliate WFTS Tampa, denying his constituents access to "exclusive local news focusing on Sarasota and surrounding area."
Buchanan also tweeted about the letter, saying: "Our community depends on access to local news for important information that impacts their daily lives. That's why I just wrote to the chairman of the FCC expressing my concern at the sudden blackout of a local TV news station here in Sarasota."
He urged the FCC to "take any appropriate action to help ensure that Frontier acts in the public interest and that Gray Television receives fair and equitable treatment..."
Chairman Pai has avoided getting into the middle of retrans disputes, suggesting the marketplace was the better arbiter.
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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.