Viacom Stations, N.H. System Sparring Over Digital Signals

MetroCast Cablevision customers want to see their beloved Red Sox play baseball in HDTV. But the small operator claims Viacom Inc. won’t let it carry the digital signals for its two Boston stations, in effect stalling the DTV transition.

MetroCast Cablevision of New Hampshire, which has 70,000 subscribers in more than 33 towns in the Granite State and Maine, has filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission against Viacom over WBZ, the media Goliath’s CBS-owned station in Boston, and WSBK, its UPN station there. The operator’s complaint charges Viacom has refused to negotiate “in good faith,” as required by federal regulations, to reach a retransmission-consent agreement for the digital signals for its two Boston stations.

The dispute may foreshadow what’s expected to be several months of contentious negotiations between broadcasters and cable operators over retransmission consent.

Under federal rules, if a station opts for retransmission consent from a cable operator, both sides must sit down and negotiate a deal for carriage of that broadcaster’s signal.

The digital signals have been a big issue during the heated fall sports season, since UPN’s WSBK has been the local broadcaster carrying “must-have HD Red Sox games,” according to the complaint. Further, CBS’s WBZ carries the games of the defending National Football League champion New England Patriots and other pro-football action.

“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 last week.

Officials from MetroCast and their attorney, Chris Cinnamon, declined to comment.

The complaint alleges that over the past 20 months, beginning Jan. 18, 2004, MetroCast has unsuccessfully tried to secure retransmission consent for the digital signals of WBZ and WSBK. “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.”

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

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

Retransmission consent could help pave the way for CBS’s first digital service. Last week at an industry panel, CBS Television executive vice president Martin Franks reiterated the broadcaster’s plan to launch “CBS dot 2” by next year. He told the Association for Maximum Service Television that under current CBS retransmission-consent deals, the digital channel will have access to 25 million cable homes.

“We are looking at more of a general-entertainment type of second channel, with lots of programming that either complements or counterprograms, frankly, the mother ship,” Franks said.

Ted Hearn contributed to this story.