Mediacom Turns To Mediator To Resolve Sinclair Retrans Dispute

A Mediacom spokesman confirms that the cable operator held a negotiation session in Washington Monday with a third-party mediator--"from outside the FCC"--in an attempt to resolve, so far without success, their retransmission- consent dispute with Sinclair.
Why Washington? "That is where the mediator is," said the spokesman.
He said the mediation ended "unsuccessfully," adding: "We are still trying to negotiate a deal with Sinclair."
The FCC has been under pressure from Congress to step in and mandate Mediacom carriage of Sinclair stations while it considers a retrans complaint by Mediacom that Sinclair was not negotiating in good faith.
That Capitol Hill interest is driven in part by the fact that constituents could lose cable access to college football bowl games slated for early January, including the national championship Jan. 7.
The current retrans deal expires Dec. 31.

The FCC has historically not stepped in to force carriage in retrans disputes. By contrast, there have been several instances of viewers losing access to TV station signals for a time due to stalled negotiations.

During a dispute between Time Warner Cable and The Walt Disney Co. back in 2000 that resulted in ABC programming going dark, then Democratic FCC chairman William Kennard said that consumers should not be held hostage to retrans disputes and that "This should never happen again."

But one veteran cable attorney said there could be a new argument for FCC intervention driven by the transition to digital.

"There is a changed circumstance from that retrans round," he said. "I would argue that there is a basis for the commission to get involved more than they did before because they implemented by Congressional edict a digital transition to make it harder for people to get the signal on a television except by pay TV. To say they have no greater responsibility when people lose signals is not that convincing an argument."

But the government also spent $1.5 billion or so to make sure over-the-air viewers could get a picture. "If you are a cable customer, particularly in a place like New York City, where you typically wouldn't be getting an over-the-air signal because of the problems with over-the air reception, why would I have spent any money to get a converter box as a backup."

Time Warner Cable and Fox are currently in a retrans dispute that also threatens to deny some viewers cable access to college bowl games, including in New York. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has called on the companies to resolve it for the emotional well-being of sports fans.

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.