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Lawmakers Dispute Retrans Dispute

WASHINGTON: Politicians addressing the retransmission dispute between WABC-TV and Cablevision are of similarly contrasting opinions. Sen. John Kerry, (D-Mass.) wrote a letter today to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski urging the regulator to prevent WABC from pulling its signal from Cablevision systems. Rep. Joe Barton, (R-Texas) suggested otherwise.

WABC and Cablevision are locked in a retransmission consent stand-off of two years’ duration. WABC says if Cablevision doesn’t pony up subscriber fees, it will be without an ABC affiliate signal as of midnight Saturday night--less than 24 hours before the Oscars.

“WABC Cablevision customers in Long Island, Westchester, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and selected suburbs of Connecticut and New Jersey could lose Channel 7 at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, March 7, 2010 due to the impasse,” N.J. Burkett posted at WABC’s Web site. “At issue is the amount of money Channel 7 is paid for its programming. Although Cablevision already pays other programmers, Channel 7 is not paid. As of Wednesday night, WABC-TV says it still has yet to receive a fair offer from Cablevision.”
Cablevision says it already pays WABC parent Disney $200 million a year for other networks, and that it’s asking for another $40 million for WABC. The MSO is positioning the argument as an unfair tax on subscribers.

“In these difficult and challenging economic times, it is not fair for ABC to force Cablevision and its customers to pay what amounts to a new TV tax for the same programming that is available today for free over the air and on the Internet,” Cablevision says on its Web site.

So then Kerry says, “These are private negotiations, but there’s a public interest at stake. Its resolution matters to the consumers who take hard-earned money out of their wallets each month to pay their cable bills and shouldn’t become collateral damage in wars between executives.”

In his letter to the chairman, Kerry asks that WABC be prevented from pulling its signal during negotiations.

“I ask you to urge the parties to stay at the negotiating table and continue transmitting ABC programming to Cablevision consumers,” he wrote.

Kerry further suggested retransmission regulations be updated.

“Today, a broadcaster can pull its signal from cable companies serving millions of people if it does not get paid what it wants for that signal,” he wrote. “I don’t believe they should be able to do that unless the cable company is negotiating in bad faith, the broadcaster has submitted a claim of bad faith negotiation to the FCC, and the FCC has determined that claim to be true. At that point, then yes, the broadcaster should be free to pull their signal....; That is not the law today, however. Currently, the broadcaster can pull his signal at his or her discretion.”

And so then Barton says, let the kids fight it out, Muriel.

“Actual discussion of the deal is best left between the respective companies and their viewers, free from government interference or cajoling,” he said. “The alternative is to ask the government to weigh the relative value of carriage and of particular programming. This is a risky proposition.”

Barton said there are multiple ways for people to get programming; it’s not as if Cablevision subscribers can’t stick rabbit ears on the TV and see the Oscars.

“This plethora of alternatives and the parties’ mutual interest in reaching a deal are perhaps why the vast majority of content negotiations ultimately result in a carriage deal no matter how many times one of the parties or the other threatens to let the screen go dark.”
-- Deborah D. McAdams

(Image by bananawacky. Yes, bananawacky.)