ACA: More Talk Time for Retrans

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Claiming that vertically integrated programming suppliers are putting the screws to them in retransmission-consent talks, small cable operators are preparing to take their case to federal authorities in hope of getting relief.

Before year-end, the American Cable Association — the little guys' trade group — intends to file an emergency petition with the Federal Communications Commission, pleading for the agency to act under emergency authority.

ACA President Matt Polka said the FCC should extend the time that operators have to negotiate retransmission-consent agreements with companies he refers to as OPEC, for the Organization of Programming Extortion Companies.

"Otherwise, across the country, our members will be forced to drop broadcast stations and that would not be in the public interest," he said.

ACA members are fighting retransmission agreements proposed by media conglomerates including the The Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC; News Corp., owner of Fox Broadcasting Co. stations; NBC owner General Electric Co. and Hearst-Argyle Television Co., which ties some station agreements to cable partner Lifetime Television.

Those companies tie retransmission consent for their over-the-air TV stations to launch commitments for the cable networks they distribute, or to huge license-fee increases for their channels.

The ACA complained about such tactics in a petition to the FCC in October, and again in a supplemental filing last week.

And if there weren't enough Goliaths to battle, the cable Davids may soon face another media titan's demands for tie-in arrangements. Broadcaster Gannett Co. has said it is mulling the launch of a digital news network, to be called America Today. It would be programmed with newscasts culled from its local TV stations.

Gannett owns stations in 22 markets, including Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Cleveland.

A Gannett official did not return calls by press time last week.

Fox Networks sent a statement: "We believe that Fox local and national programming is of value to broadband providers. Although we don't typically comment on the status of any confidential negotiations, we remain in active discussions on several licensing alternatives including conventional fees for station carriage."

System operators said talks have become one-sided, with content providers expressing a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

"Negotiations? I see 'em coming and I just assume the position," said Ralph Morrow, owner of Catalina Cable TV on the island off the coast of California.