Mediacom-Sinclair Rages On

The retransmission-consent battle between Mediacom Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group refuses to die, with the cable operator filing an appeal with the Federal Communications Commission Monday that it hopes will force the broadcaster back to the bargaining table.

The dispute between Mediacom and Sinclair -- which owns and operates 22 television stations in Mediacom markets -- has been going on for more than one month. Sinclair officially pulled its signals from Mediacom systems Jan. 6 at 12:01 a.m.

At the heart of the dispute is Sinclair’s insistence that Mediacom pay cash for retransmission consent, estimated by some analysts to be about 50 cents per subscriber, per month. 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.

In a conference call Monday, Mediacom chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso said the MSO attempted to continue negotiations last Friday with Sinclair, only to be told that the broadcaster did not expect to make a decision until the end of the weekend.

Mediacom again reached out to Sinclair later Saturday with another proposal -- this one a weighted-average price reflecting what other operators (McLeodUSA, Time Warner Cable and Comcast) are paying the broadcaster -- only to be rebuffed again.

Mediacom also claimed that it has tried to get Sinclair to submit to binding arbitration in order to settle the dispute, but Sinclair has refused to do so.

In its FCC filing Monday, Mediacom said the commission erred on about 10 accounts in its ruling last week that determined that Sinclair was negotiating in good faith, including that the complaint should have been acted on by the full commission instead of the commission’s Media Bureau; that the ruling did not take into account prices Mediacom is paying other networks; that the bureau did not take into consideration Sinclair’s bounty payment agreement with DirecTV, where the broadcaster would pay the direct-broadcast satellite company for every Mediacom customer it signed up, as evidence that Sinclair was engaging in discriminatory practices; and that the bureau erred in stating that it did not have the authority to force binding arbitration.

During the conference call, Mediacom executive vice president of operations John Pascarelli urged the operator’s Iowa subscribers to contact state and national legislators to force Sinclair to negotiate.

“You reaching out to your senators and letting them know how you feel can go a long way,” Pascarelli said. “Don’t just sit back and think that this is a Mediacom fight.”

Commisso would not say how many subscribers Mediacom has lost in Iowa as a result of the dispute. He did admit that some customers were lost, although he said those numbers were not material.

Mediacom also handed out “thousands” of antennas to allow customers to receive the Sinclair stations over the air. While a report in Sunday’s Des Moines Register said Mediacom had run out of antennas to distribute, Pascarelli said on the call that “plenty more will be showing up in the next two days.”

Pascarelli added that Mediacom is making moves to avoid an exodus of customers intent on watching tonight’s college-football Bowl Championship Series championship game (Ohio State vs. University of Florida) on Fox. He said Mediacom is hosting football parties in several different locations for customers to watch the game, particularly in the Des Moines and Champaign-Springfield, Ill., areas.

The Iowa Cable & Telecommunications Association also threw in its support of Mediacom in the Sinclair battle, asking that state’s government to investigate the Sinclair dispute and proposing that the Iowa General Assembly enact legislation that would prevent any programmer -- cable or broadcast -- from “discriminating against Iowans.”