Updated: Mediacom, Sinclair Reach Eight-Day Retrans Extension

Sinclair and Mediacom have agreed to an eight-day interim carriage agreement.

The deal is at terms set by Sinclair, according to a Mediacom source, and at a price higher than the current one.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, who praised the move Thursday, urged the parties to strike a long-term deal, but said the FCC would not step in to extend carriage past that Jan. 8 date. He also said he had asked Fox and Time Warner to follow suit and agree to an extension.

Both carriage contracts are set to expire Dec. 31. The extension protects Mediacom subscribers' access to a bunch of college bowl games, including the Jan. 5 Orange Bowl between Iowa and Georgia Tech and the Jan. 7 national championship game, pitting Alabama against Texas, contests presumably of high-interest to Mediacom subscribers in Iowa and Alabama. All told, the extension affects 24 stations and viewers in 12 states.

"Our viewers are very important to us and we responded to their interest in being able to watch, via Mediacom, programs meaningful to them over the next eight days," said Sinclair executive vice president and general counsel Barry Faber in announcing the extension. "We recognize that several of the impacted markets have college teams that will be playing in the BCS bowl games. Although our stations are available for free over-the-air and from Mediacom's competitors, we thought it was important to ensure that our viewers had the opportunity to see those games without inconvenience."

"We're pleased that the Orange Bowl and national championship game can't be held hostage any longer," said Mediacom spokesman Tom Larsen. "We're going to continue to work with Sinclair and the FCC and all the politicians who have weighed in and try to get a deal done in eight days."

"I commend Sinclair and Mediacom for agreeing to an eight-day extension of their retransmission consent agreement, which was set to expire tonight," said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. "This extension, to midnight Jan. 8, 2010, will avert the frustration that Mediacom customers would have experienced if Sinclair stations had ceased to be available over Mediacom systems at midnight tonight. It will give Sinclair and Mediacom additional time to resolve their negotiations successfully, as hundreds of other broadcasters and cable companies have done throughout the country, so that viewers will have uninterrupted access to popular broadcast programming," he said.

Broadcasters have been increasingly arguing that their signals deserve cash payments and ones more in line with what top cable nets receive. Certainly the attention paid by Capitol Hill to the potential loss of college bowl games suggests the signals are valuable, though must-have sports, including bowl games, are increasingly moving to cable platforms.

"I hope and expect that the parties will use this extension to come to terms by the January 8 expiration date," Genachowski said. "But at the end of the day, the companies will have to accept shared responsibility for protecting their audience's interests, as the current framework governing retransmission consent agreements contemplates. Assuming that the parties negotiate in good faith during the extension, therefore, I will not seek a further continuation of carriage absent a new agreement between the parties."

That was fine with Faber: "We applaud the FCC 's message to Mediacom not to expect government intervention if the parties are unable, through the exercise of good faith negotiations, to reach agreement during the 8-day extension," he said.

The Genachwoski reference to "good faith" is important, however. Mediacom complained to the FCC that Sinclair was not bargaining in good faith, and asked for an emergency carriage mandate while it considered the complaint. It could still mandate carriage if it concluded Mediacom had made its case.

Genachwoski was also looking to make sure that the Time Square ball was the only thing dropped at midnight --the Time Warner/Fox retrans deal includes New York.

"I have urged Fox and Time Warner Cable to agree to a temporary extension of carriage if they do not come to terms on a new carriage agreement today," added Genachwoski, "in order to prevent disruption to their viewers. Companies shouldn't force cable-watching football fans to scramble for other means of TV delivery on New Year's weekend," Genachowski said.

The Sinclair extension came not long after Mediacom circulated a letter to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) dated Dec. 31, saying the cable operator late Wednesday night received a "tentative indication" from Sinclair that "they might consider a very short-term extension of our agreement."

Mediacom chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso gave Kerry credit for prompting the thaw.

Sinclair could have pulled its TV station signals from Mediacom systems at midnight tonight absent a retransmission-consent deal that has yet to materialize.

Sinclair has been asking for more than Mediacom is willing to pay, but the cable operator offered to pay that contested price for a three-month period while negotiations continued. That would have kept the signals on the systems through the college bowl game blitz of early January, as well as the Super Bowl. Kerry has been actively pushing the parties to resolve the disputes.

Sinclair countered that it would agree to a year extension at its asking price, but that the three-month extension would shift leverage to Mediacom because of its inclusion of some of that must-have programming. The retrans deal impasse has been for a year contract, anyway, so Sinclair was effectively countering with its standing offer.

Larsen said he remained optimistic that a long-term deal could be done.

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.