Iowa Legislators Weigh In on Mediacom-Sinclair

A group of Iowa legislators threw their two cents into the ongoing dispute between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Mediacom Communications, urging the two parties to enter into binding arbitration to settle their differences -- a request Sinclair promptly declined.

Sinclair pulled two of its stations in Iowa from Mediacom systems Jan. 6 after the two companies could not reach a retransmission-consent agreement.

Mediacom tried to block Sinclair from pulling its signals through court action, which was denied, and through an appeal to the Federal Communications Commission, which said Jan. 4 that Sinclair was negotiating in good faith. In that Jan. 4 ruling, however, the FCC’s Media Bureau strongly suggested that the two parties enter into binding arbitration.

On Jan. 11, U.S. Iowa Sens. Tom Harkin (D) and Charles Grassley (R) and Reps. Bruce Braley (D), Dave Loebsack (D), Leonard Boswell (D), Tom Latham (R) and Steve King (R) sent a letter to Mediacom chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso and Sinclair CEO David Smith urging the two parties to take the FCC suggestion to heart.

“Given that negotiations stand at an impasse, binding arbitration would seem to present the parties with an alternative mechanism for resolving this dispute,” the lawmakers wrote. “We therefore urge that you consider the clear guidance of the Federal Communications Commission in agreeing to a process to bring the parties to an agreement without further harming Iowa consumers.”

In a response to the legislators, Smith said the company has concluded that it is “not prepared” to go the arbitration route.

“I hope you can understand Sinclair’s reluctance to agree to such an unusual approach to resolve what is essentially a disagreement on price in a commercial negotiation between two parties -- parties that are legally entitled to make their own decisions on how best to run their respective businesses,” he wrote.

The Sinclair stations cover an area including about 700,000 Mediacom subscribers in 12 states and are affiliates of ABC, Fox, MyNetwork TV and The CW. The number of subscribers who lost major network affiliates like Fox is about 500,000, according to company officials. The bulk of those subscribers are in Mediacom’s Iowa market.

Mediacom -- along with the American Cable Association and the Iowa Cable & Telecommunications Association -- has been urging state and national legislators to get involved in the dispute, with the ICTA asking state legislators earlier this week to pass a law that would prevent any programmer, cable or broadcast, from “discriminating against Iowans.”

Mediacom has been trying to get Sinclair to agree to arbitration for more than one month.