ATVA Steps Up Retrans Pressure

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The American Television Alliance, the consortium of distributors and programmers formed last year, has entered the retransmission consent fight between founding member Mediacom Communications and LIN TV, placing ads in industry publications calling the broadcaster "greedy" for pulling its signal during Tropical Storm Lee, which recently battered the Gulf Coast.
Mediacom and LIN have been in a retrans dispute since Aug. 31 when the broadcaster pulled the signal for eight stations in five states after it could not reach a deal with the MSO, including Fox affiliates WALA-WFNA in the Mobile, Ala.-Pensacola, Fla., area hit hard by Tropical Storm Lee.
LIN had given Mediacom a one week extension for two stations in Norfolk, Va., during Hurricane Irene, but pulled those signals on Sept. 7, several days after the storm passed.
The ATVA stepped up the pressure on Sept. 8, in ads placed on political web site Politico and in Communications Daily, featuring a TV screen showing trees bending in high winds, followed by the not-too-subtle words: "In the middle of a tropical storm, what kind of people will black out your TV programming? Greedy ones."
The ad goes on to state that the LIN blackout marks the eighth time in 2011 that programmers have used the blackout tactic in retrans negotiations and urges customers to write their Congressman and the Federal Communications Commission to reform retrans laws "otherwise your programming could be next."
LIN, in a statement, argued that the ATVA ads are "misleading and is nothing more than another chapter in the cable industry's continued efforts to increase its negotiating leverage over broadcasters in retransmission consent negotiations."
The broadcaster added that it gave the extension for the Norfolk stations until Sept. 7, a full 11 days after Hurricane Irene. As Tropical Storm Lee neared the Gulf Coast, LIN said it offered Mediacom the rights to reinstate carriage of its Mobile and Pensacola stations local and breaking news for one week, the period before, during and after the storm.
"Mediacom refused that offer and as a result its subscribers were unable to see our stations' local news and weather coverage," LIN said in the statement. "The Federal Communications Commission is aware of our offers and we will continue to provide updates on the status of our negotiations. We hope that the ATA will discontinue use of these deplorable tactics."
Mediacom said LIN had offered to allow carriage of the stations only during breaking news updates - it would have to black out the channel at all other times - a move that the MSO decided would not serve its customers' best interests.
"While what they said was technically accurate, it was also technically impossible for us to only show the portion of their programming stream that displayed local and breaking news only, said Mediacom vice president of public and legal affairs Tom Larsen. " It literally would have required us to have a person in every headend 24 hours a day watching the LIN stations and trying to determine what constituted local and breaking news. We don't operate cable systems that way, so the LIN offer was meaningless and counter to what was best for the residents we are both obligated to serve in the Gulf Coast."
The ads come about a week after Mediacom chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso wrote a letter to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, criticizing the agency for its inaction on the retrans front.
Larsen said that the ads reflect how retrans disputes have escalated.
"I think it is one thing to blackout a big football game or American Idol episode from consumers, but an entirely different thing to blackout consumers during a large scale public safety emergency," Larsen said. "The ATVA ads simply show the entirely new level of absurdity that retrans negotiations have reached. I think to the extent that other broadcasters follow LIN's lead heading into the upcoming retrans/must carry cycle, ATVA will continue to stand up for consumers by running these types of ads."
ATVA was formed in 2010, joining programmers and distributors alike to push for retransmission consent reform.