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Lobbyist Urges Lawmakers to Step into Retrans Battles

WASHINGTON: The founder and head of a public interest group in Washington, D.C. is calling on lawmakers to step into retransmission battles. Gigi B. Sohn, head of Public Knowledge, weighed in today on an ongoing dispute between WABC-TV and Cablevision in New York. The ABC O&O in the nation’s largest market announced this week it would pull its signal from Cablevision’s 3 million subscribers if the two couldn’t reach an agreement by Sunday, when the network will carry the Academy Awards.

The cable operator has carried WABC for free up to now, but the station started negotiating for retransmission fees a couple of years ago, Media Post reports.

The president and general manager of WABC, Rebecca Campbell, says Cablevision is being unreasonable. A statement from the station said “all of their offers have been designed to be rejected.”

Cablevision says WABC is asking for $40 million in new fees.

As TV stations and networks demand the same type of fees afforded cable-only networks, retransmission disputes have become more common. Recent high-profile battles have involved Fox and Time Warner Cable, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Mediacom, Cablevision and Fox and others. The contention typically spills over into the media, with the networks threatening to pull signals just before some major TV event like the Super Bowl or the Oscars. The opening salvo came around 10 years ago, when ABC pulled its stations from Time Warner systems during the peak popularity of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Public Knowledge’s Sohn said words to the effect of “enough already.”

“We call yet again on policymakers to consider requiring interim carriage of over-the-air stations should a retransmission consent agreement expire while the parties are still negotiating. In addition, policymakers should examine other proposed reforms, including: 1)mandatory unbundling of programming; 2) elimination of the prohibition against cable and satellite operators importing ‘distant’ broadcast signals; 3) transparency for all retransmission consent contracts; and 4) a requirement that retransmission consent licenses be on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.”

Sohn said the enumerated changes would keep cable rates under control, and “consumers out of the line of fire when big companies have business disagreements.” -- Deborah D. McAdams