Allbritton Files Retrans Complaint With FCC Against Rural Virginia Cabler

ARLINGTON, VA.: Allbritton filed an Emergency Petition with the Federal Communications Commission today, charging a rural Virginia cable operation of “bad faith” negotiations. Allbritton, owner of ABC affiliate WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., says Shentel Communications of Shenandoah County, Va., dropped the station’s signal on New Year’s Eve “with insufficient notice.” It’s asking the FCC to order Shentel, which has 8,200 subscribers, to reinstate WJLA’s signal.

“Shentel proposed retransmission consent terms and, when Allbritton accepted those terms, Shentel withdrew the offer, dropped WJLA-TV with insufficient notice, and has refused Allbritton’s further efforts to negotiate,” Albritton’s complaint states. “If Shentel’s actions in this case don’t constitute bad faith negotiations, then the Act and the commission’s rules provide no effective protection for parties seeking in good faith to negotiate retransmission consent.”

The dust-up started in September, with both sides haggling over monthly, per-subscriber fees. Allbritton said Shentel sought a “heavy discount” from its standard rate because it also carries WHSV-TV, an out-of-market ABC affiliate. Shentel is said to have come in with an offer 25 cents below Allbritton’s normal ask. Allbritton came back with one 17 cents above that—the same, it said, as what Shentel was paying for Allbritton’s Lynchburg, Va., ABC affiliate, WSET-TV. The complaint says Shentel never formally rejected Allbritton’s offer, rescinded its own, nor “indicated that negotiations were at an impasse.”

When Allbritton’s negotiator picked up the phone Dec. 19 and called Shentel’s, he was told the relationship was over and WJLA would be pulled Dec. 31 2011. Allbritton asked for a second chance at the 25-cent offer, but Shentel stopped returning its messages, replacing the WJLA signal with a placard on New Year’s Eve directing viewers to find ABC programming on WHSV. Allbritton said Shentel “promised a full explanation of its decision by Jan. 3, 2012,” but as of the filing none had been forthcoming.

“We were able to reach retransmission agreements with every other distributor across our seven markets,” said Allbritton Senior Vice President Jerald Fritz. “Shentel’s refusal to take ‘yes’ for an answer makes it the poster child for bad faith bargaining, and it constitutes an on-going, daily, per se violation of the FCC’s rules.”

Retransmission rules require cable operators to give broadcasters a 30-day written notice when they intend to drop a signal. Allbritton said it got an email 11 days before WJLA was pulled. Subscribers are also supposed to get a 30-day notice; Allbritton claims Shentel’s received their first on Dec. 23, 2011. In addition to bringing Shentel back to the table at the 25-cent offer, Allbritton is asking the FCC to investigate the series of events and to fine Shentel $7,500, the base penalty for broadcast carriage violations.

~ Deborah McAdams