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NCTC, ACA Step Up Pressure On AMC Networks at FCC

Carriage battles, normally as common as holiday hangovers and broken New Year’s resolutions, seem few and far between as the year draws to a close, with AMC Networks’s scuffle with scores of small cable operators at the top of the list.

More carriage disputes could emerge. One that has been talked about for months — Dish Network’s expiring contract with Viacom — comes up on March 31. But for now, AMC’s increasingly bitter negotiations with the National Cable Television Cooperative, a buying consortium of more than 850 mostly small and mid-sized cable companies, is drawing the most attention.

CRAWLING WHILE WALKING

In November, AMC began running crawls during its most popular show, The Walking Dead, warning viewers that they might lose access to programming if a deal isn’t reached. While that practice is common with networks that are approaching their expiration date, several smaller operators took it as a heavy-handed scare tactic to push through a deal.

NCTC members expressed concern with AMC in a Dec. 11 meeting with Federal Communications Commission officials on the challenges faced by small operators. In an ex parte filing with the FCC about that meeting, part of the agency’s video-competition information gathering, they complained that AMC wanted to require operators to count all subscribers when calculating license fees, not just the ones that receive the networks. That move, the operators claimed, prevents them from offering “skinny bundles,” or smaller packages of video programming.

In a later letter to the FCC, lobbying group the American Cable Association said AMC had removed the cue tones from select operators, prohibiting them from inserting advertising during The Walking Dead. The ACA said its members face a decision to “overpay or drop.” The NCTC said about 70 of its members have notified their 800,000 customers they would drop the AMC Networks-distributed channels.

There is still time for a deal to be reached. AMC said in a statement it is working with the NCTC and “has long supported smaller cable operators and the particular challenges and considerations that they face in the service of their markets.”

WHEELER PAUSES OTT

Meanwhile, a different focus of cable lobbying activity at the FCC — over a proposal to redefine online video providers as multichannel video programming distributors — was described as still on “pause” by chairman Tom Wheeler.

Wheeler said his proposal was meant to gather input, which it had, and which then “gave us cause to hit pause.”

“There are so many innovative things going on right now in the video space, and we want to let it continue to innovate,” Wheeler said in a briefing.

He signaled to Congress in an oversight hearing last month that no action was imminent on his proposal, which has gotten pushback from some major edge players. Wheeler had initially proposed a vote by the fall.

Cable operators have argued that the facilities-based definition of an MVPD was the correct one. But, then again, those companies argued that classifying broadband Internet access as a Title II common-carrier service would be disastrous, and Wheeler was not dissuaded.

The chairman could also be having a hard time rustling up votes, given the pushback from some major players like members of the Digital Media Association, which include Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and YouTube.

Washington bureau chief John Eggerton contributed to this story.