N.Y. Must-Carry Battle Is Waged in Court

A lawyer for independent station WRNN-TV last week told a federal appeals panel it faces financial ruin if it can’t secure carriage from Cablevision Systems in New York City’s Long Island suburbs.

WRNN counsel Andrew McBride made the argument, which Cablevision disputed, during a hearing before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan. The additional distribution is crucial to compete with other local stations for advertising, according to McBride.

“We’re an independent station, privately owned,” he told the three-judge panel. “If you confine the station to Kingston, you’d destroy this station.”

Cablevision is challenging a Federal Communications Commission ruling that grants WRNN must-carry status in Long Island, mandating that the cable operator offer its signal.

During the oral arguments in Manhattan, Cablevision lawyer Henk Brands told the court that WRNN is a home-shopping station that has made a business model of seeking must-carry rights from cable companies.

Brands also said there was no evidence that WRNN “will in any way be harmed” if it doesn’t secure cable carriage on Long Island.

The station is based in Kingston, N.Y., a town located closer to Albany than to Long Island but nevertheless within the New York designated market area that includes Cablevision’s Long Island cable systems.

At Cablevision’s request, an FCC staff ruling in 1996 deleted the operator’s heavily populated Nassau County and western Suffolk Country franchise areas from WRNN’s must-carry market.

But the issue was revived in 2002 when WRNN moved its transmitter to Beacon Mountain, N.Y., about 50 miles closer to Manhattan, and commenced digital-only broadcasts on channel 48.

With its digital signal reaching Long Island, and having added some Long Island-specific programming, WRNN asked the FCC to order Cablevision to carry the TV station in Nassau. Last November, the FCC ruled in favor WRNN. Last month, the 2nd Circuit stayed that decision pending the outcome of the litigation at Cablevision’s request.

Brands told the appellate panel WRRN wants “beachfront” spectrum on Cablevision’s channel lineup, “a 6-Megahertz slot on our analog tier,” because the station’s channel position is channel 48.

“We may have to throw off some other programmer,” Brands said.

In a legal brief, Cablevision said, “This case is about cynical gamesmanship by an upstate New York television station in pursuit of cable carriage on Long Island, where it has never had a viewing audience.”

But in its brief, the FCC said the must-carry law was intended to help stations add cable system in circumstances such as those presented by WRNN.