MetroCast, Viacom in HD Retrans Flap

MetroCast Cablevision subscribers want to see their beloved Red Sox games in HDTV, but the cable operator claimed that Viacom Inc. is denying it carriage of digital signals for UPN and CBS stations in Boston.

MetroCast Cablevision of New Hampshire -- which has 70,000 subscribers in more than 33 towns in the Granite State and Maine -- filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission against Viacom in a case involving WBZ, the CBS-owned station in Boston, and WSBK, the company’s UPN station in Boston.

The complaint charged that Viacom has refused to negotiate “in good faith” to reach a retransmission-consent agreement for the HDTV signals for its two Boston stations.

It’s a big issue during the heated fall sports season, since UPN’s WSBK is the local broadcast affiliate carrying “must-have HD Red Sox games,” the complaint said. And CBS’ WBZ has the New England Patriots and the National Football League.

“This case provides the commission with a key opportunity to send a strong signal to this media giant that the commission will not tolerate flagrant violations of retransmission-consent regulations, particularly in cases where the conduct disadvantages a smaller MVPD [multichannel video programming distributor] and impedes the digital transition,” the complaint said.

“We have not seen the complaint, but CBS looks forward to having discussions with MetroCast and reaching a mutually beneficial agreement on behalf of the viewers we share,” a Viacom spokesman said.

Officials from MetroCast and their attorney, Chris Cinnamon, declined to comment Thursday. Officials at CBS, WBZ and WSBK couldn’t for reached for comment at deadline.

The complaint alleged that MetroCast for the past 20 months has unsuccessfully tried to secure retransmission consent for the digital signals of WBZ and WSBK. The complaint seeks an FCC order directing Viacom to negotiate in good faith.

“Viacom has refused to respond, much less negotiate in good faith,” MetroCast’s complaint alleged. “To date, Viacom has not responded to any of MetroCast’s proposals.”

Linda Stuchell, MetroCast’s director of programming, first contacted WBZ about carrying its digital signal Jan. 18, 2004, according to the complaint. Later on, MetroCast extended that request to also seek carriage of WSBK’s digital signal.

After being told that “Viacom corporate” was handling retransmission consent, Stuchell went on to eventually contact Viacom vice president and associate general counsel Howard Jaeckel about getting carriage of the digital signals for the company’s two Boston stations.

Viacom repeatedly didn’t respond to Stuchell’s correspondences, according to the complaint. MetroCast’s last attempt to contact Viacom was Aug. 8.

The complaint alleged that MetroCast is being put at a competitive disadvantage since both DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network carry the digital signals of WBZ and WSBK, “including WSBK-DT’s must-have Red Sox games.”

While MetroCast wants WBZ’s digital signal, it is currently carrying the digital signal of WGME, a CBS affiliate in Portland, Maine, owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.

The complaint claimed that Viacom has been telling MetroCast’s subscribers that the cable operator has the “authority” to carry WBZ and WSBK’s digital signals.

By “misinforming” MetroCast’s customers, Viacom has damaged the cable operator’s “reputation and credibility,” according to the complaint.

Since MetroCast is ready and able to bring WBZ’s and WSBK’s digital signals to its customers but can’t do so without consent, Viacom’s alleged refusal to negotiate is “impeding the digital transition,” the complaint continued.