The American Cable Association charged Thursday that a pattern of retransmission-consent abuse by broadcasters is emerging, reflected by three recent filings—complaints and requests for stays—made by small cable operators with the Federal Communications Commission.
Those three filings, lodged last week and this Monday, were made by independent cable companies that allege abuse of federal regulations regarding “good faith” retransmission consent negotiations.
"It's an open industry secret that retransmission consent negotiations among broadcasters and small, independent cable operators more resemble an episode of The Sopranos than they do a business negotiation in a free market," ACA president and CEO Matt Polka said in a prepared statement.
But a consultant representing the TV stations cited in the three FCC filings, Nexstar Broadcasting veteran Duane Lammers, claimed that the small operators’ allegations are groundless.
“If you actually get into them, you’re going to find they’re pretty frivolous,” Lammers said. “We’re going to file our responses…Look, this is all part of the rhetoric that’s getting built up right now.”
He added that in contrast to the ACA’s charges, he’s closed nearly 40 retransmission-consent deals “without incident in the last month.”
One of the three recent FCC filings involves a small Louisiana operator, Trust Cable TV, whose systems and service areas were hit when Hurricane Gustav ripped through the region earlier this month. During the emergency, a representative from broadcasters WGMB and WVLA “slapped” Trust Cable with a take-it-or-leave-it retransmission offer, then rescinded the offer on a few hours notice, according to the cable operator’s complaint.
Trust has asked the FCC for an emergency stay preventing the broadcast station owners from pulling its signals until Trust Cable can fully recover from the storm and the proceeding concludes. WGMB is controlled by Communications Corp. of America and WVLA is owned by White Knight Holdings.
"We've been stretched to the breaking point trying to assess the damage in our service areas and restore communications to our customers as quickly as humanly possible," Trust Cable’s Steven Inzinna said in a prepared statement. "None of our subscribers or the community would believe us if we told them we had to pull these local broadcast signals because of a contract dispute.”
Lammers claimed he wasn’t making any unreasonable demands of Trust Cable.
“All I was asking for was contact,” he said. “I wasn’t demanding that anything be completed that day…All I was doing was saying you can’t sit on this thing forever, meaning the new contract. Of course, they’re not going to go out of their way to point out that they were under no pressure to get anything done, because they weren’t.”
Joining Trust Cable in filing formal complaints at the FCC were Baja Broadband and Paul Bunyan Telephone Cooperative, which also allege violations of the FCC's obligations for good-faith negotiations.
Baja’s complaint is against El Paso station KTSM, also controlled by Communications Corp of America, while Paul Bunyan’s complaint is against Granite Broadcasting stations KRII and KBJR and Malara Broadcasting station KDLH in the Duluth, Minn.-market.
The filings allege “take it or leave it” refusals to deal. Each of the complaints requests the Commission to grant a stay preventing the broadcasters from pulling their signals during the pendency of the complaints.
Lammers also denied Paul Bunyan’s allegations.
“I got almost a dozen contracts done in that market,” he said. “Paul Bunyan is the only one that didn’t get [its contract] done. You can draw your own conclusion. Here’s one cable system in a market where I was able to go in and peacefully conduct my work with fellow small cable operators. Paul Bunyan may be the largest of the ones I was working with.”