Cárdenas Seeks Signatories to Estrella TV Letter

Asks DOJ, FCC to Consider Impasse in Vetting Comcast/TWC

The Comcast-Estrella TV carriage impasse continues to reverberate in Washington, helped by the interest of Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) and his linkage of the dispute to the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger proposal

Cárdenas has been circulating a "dear colleague" letter to other members of Congress asking them to write the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice, which are vetting the deal, to make sure that independent programmers are not harmed in the making of that meld.

Interested parties had until the end of the day Thursday (Feb. 12) to sign the letter, but there was no word at press time whether anyone else had done so.

The letter advises the FCC and DOJ that they should not be construed as taking sides in the dispute between LA-based Estrella TV and Comcast. But Cardenas told his colleagues in asking them to sign the letter that the dispute "clearly demonstrates the danger that exists when vertically integrated companies, who also act as distributors for competing content, have incentive to discriminate against independent program providers and drive down carriage fees for competitors, position those competitors poorly on the dial, offer them in standard definition versus high definition, or place them on more expensive programming tiers, all to the economic detriment of the independent programmer."

"Independent program providers, like all businesses in America, must have the protection against vertical integration pressures provided by American law. No company should be forced to compete against a vertically integrated company given unfair advantage by powerful corporate parents," the letter says, and asks "whether safeguards could even exist [for the Comcast/TWC deal] to protect unaffiliated programming from being discriminated against on the basis of self-interest."

Comcast had no response to the letter, but it has already explained why it thinks the Estrella characterization doesn't wash.

"Comcast already distributes Estrella TV programming broadly as Estrella’s largest distributor and we have been negotiating in good faith for months with Liberman Broadcasting to continue carrying its broadcast signals in these three markets, which represent only 20 percent of our total Estrella distribution," Comcast said last week. "Most importantly, Comcast is not dropping Estrella – it is Estrella that has decided to pull its signal from Comcast customers.  In fact, we’ve offered to continue to carry their stations under the existing arrangements, which are the same terms we have with other, comparable networks. 

"We do not believe Comcast’s customers should have to pay millions of dollars for Estrella’s broadcast programming that has very limited appeal," Comcast continued. "Contrary to Estrella’s assertions, these stations are not widely viewed among Latino audiences."

According to Nielsen November 2014 sweeps ratings for Houston, Salt Lake City, and Denver -- the three markets where Comcast and Estrella have failed to come to carriage terms -- Estrella TV was the third or fourth Hispanic-language station in Hispanic household viewing. Monday-Sunday, sign on to sign off, the Estrella TV affiliate was fourth in Houston behind Univision. Comcast-owned Telemundo and UniMas; third in Salt Lake City behind Telemundo and Univision; and tied for third with Telemundo in Denver. Estrella TV's average for those three markets was a little more than a .5 rating, while Telemundo's was more than double that and Univision averaged almost a 4 rating.

Cárdenas has been critical of both Time Warner Cable and its deal to merge with Comcast. Last summer, he asked the FCC to mediate the carriage dispute between Time Warner Cable and various distributors over carriage of SportsNet LA and the Los Angeles Dodgers.