FCC bombarded from all sides of the retrans debate

The NAB said the proposed retransmission changes would be “devastating;” Cox Enterprises, owner of both TV stations and cable MSOs, told the FCC it needs to consider adopting a last-ditch, fail-safe, when-all-else-fails system to prevent the kind of retrans stalemates that result in cable subscribers losing wired access to TV stations; Sinclair Broadcast Group said the system is not broken and doesn't need fixing.

That’s a typical day at the FCC as interested parties filed a range of comments on the commission’s retrans proposal. Proposed changes by the FCC include outside arbitration, standstill agreements and unbundling station carriage negotiations from co-owned cable channels.

The NAB asked the FCC to deny giving pay-TV providers more leverage in retrans negotiations, saying to do so would make TV stations a non-factor in the competitive marketplace.

The Cox petition sides with the FCC’s proposals, recommending outside arbitration and standstill agreements to keep signals on the air as well as looking at whether TV station retrans deals should be forcibly decoupled from co-owned cable channel carriage.

It was Sinclair, whose high-profile retrans battle with Mediacom around the time of New Year’s Day football games, which really brought the issue to the attention of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in the first place. The broadcaster told the FCC the system is not broken because less than 1 percent of signals are pulled from cable systems. However, Sinclair argued that cable operators often wait until the last minute to negotiate a new deal, “knowing that interruptions can be costly for a broadcaster.”

Sinclair argued that the system was just now beginning to work as it was intended, with broadcasters getting the cash compensation for their signals that the 1992 Cable Act envisioned when it set up the system. “The petition is simply an effort by the MVPDs to institutionalize one of their favored negotiating tactics — the extension of an expired agreement — through government fiat,” Sinclair wrote.

In short, the broadcasters argued, the proposed FCC changes “would have devastating consequences for competition, for the program services provided by local stations and, more importantly, for the nation’s television viewers.”