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Retransmission disagreements may result in revamped FCC policy

After enduring last-minute retransmission disagreements that could have left viewers without college bowl games over the New Year’s weekend, the FCC has scheduled a potential rule change at its Jan. 20 meeting that could prohibit cable operators from blocking sports broadcasts.

The FCC will consider preventing cable TV companies from withholding some sports telecasts from competitors. The potential rule change would allow cable competitors to seek access to programming by filing complaints with the FCC.

The action comes after a tense News Year’s Eve showdown between Time Warner Cable and FOX over retransmission rights. An agreement was reached late New Year’s Day, only hours after the current contract between the two companies expired. Viewers never lost the FOX programming and were able to watch the college bowl games on the network as scheduled.

The high-stakes game between mogul Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second-largest cable operator, reached a peak in the last few days. FOX had been asking for $1 per subscriber, with Time Warner wanting to pay 30 cents. The final amount of the deal was unannounced, though Time Warner president Glenn Britt called it a “reasonable deal.”

Lawmakers in Congress and regulators at the FCC pleaded with both companies to hammer out a deal or face their wrath. Talks continued around the clock among executives hunkered down on FOX’s Century City lot.

In another high-profile retransmission deal, Sinclair and Mediacom agreed to an eight-day extension to their carriage agreement for 22 stations in 12 media markets. It was originally set to expire Dec. 31, but now the companies have until midnight Jan. 8. Again, cable customers averted missing weekend college bowl games because of the dispute.

Not every cable customer was so lucky. More than 3 million Cablevision customers in the New York metropolitan area faced a breakdown in talks on New Year’s Eve when the Food Network and HGTV were removed from the cable system. Scripps Networks said it wanted more money for the channels.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said media companies “shouldn’t force cable-watching football fans to scramble for other means of TV delivery on New Year’s weekend.”

The FCC’s agenda for Jan. 20 includes a report and order “to further promote competition in the video distribution market through rules addressing terrestrially delivered, cable-affiliated programming.”