Mediacom, Sinclair Come to Iowa

Mediacom Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group brought their longstanding retransmission-consent dispute to a panel of Iowa state legislators Tuesday, with somewhat mixed results.

The Iowa Legislature’s Joint Government Oversight Committee called executives from both companies to the hearing in hopes of finding a solution to the dispute.

While several legislators expressed outrage concerning the spat -- Sinclair’s 22 broadcast stations in 13 states were pulled off Mediacom systems Jan. 6 when their original retransmission-consent agreement expired -- at least one other expressed dismay that the two companies were ever called to testify in the first place.

Mediacom chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso and vice president Ed Pardini testified before the committee, with Pardini pointing out that Mediacom’s Iowa systems -- its largest cluster -- are the cable company’s “crown jewel,” and that the company has invested $400 million in those systems and created 500 jobs in the state since 2001, according to AP.

Mediacom has repeatedly called for Sinclair to enter into binding arbitration to settle the matter -- a request Sinclair has rebuffed.

Several state legislators chastised Sinclair for pulling its stations and refusing to enter into binding arbitration. Sinclair VP and general counsel Barry Faber responded that Iowans who wish to view the Sinclair stations can do so by either switching to direct-broadcast satellite service or receiving the stations over the air.

Faber said he was sorry that Iowans are affected by the dispute but added that while broadcasters have an obligation to act in the public interest, that does not extend to entering into contract agreements it deems unfair, according to AP. That was a concept that was backed by at least one legislator, Rep. Ralph Watts (R-Adel).

“Shame on you for wanting to come to a state government body on a private contract issue, and shame on us for accepting the offer for you to come here,” Watts said, according to an AP report. “You need to solve this issue for yourselves and, if the solution doesn’t meet the public’s approval, they’ll vote with their feet.”

The Federal Communications Commission has said publicly that it does not have the authority to force the parties into binding arbitration, which Mediacom disputes.

On Wednesday, Iowa Congressman Leonard Boswell (D), along with other Iowa congressional representatives -- Tom Latham (R), Bruce Braley (D) and Dave Loebsack (D) -- sent a letter to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce requesting help in determining if the FCC does indeed have the right to force arbitration.

In the letter, the representatives included statements from Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who managed the 1992 Cable Act on the Senate floor, implying that the commission has the right to resolve these types of disputes.

“We believe this evidence provides a clear understanding as to the FCC’s authority, as provided by the Congress, where retransmission-consent disputes fail to produce an agreement between two parties,” the letter stated.

“We ask you for your guidance as to whether or not the FCC does indeed have the authority to order negotiating parties into final binding arbitration,” the letter continued. “If this authority does exist, we ask you to reiterate to the FCC that they do have the authority to order final binding arbitration as a tool to end disputes such as these.”