In an escalating battle over retransmission consent, Cox Communications Inc. last Friday said it was refusing to pull ABC affiliate WJLA-TV from its cable system in Fairfax County, Va. — despite a mandate to do so from the broadcaster.
Cox and the station's owner, Allbritton Communications Co., last week went public with their dispute, which affects some 240,000 subscribers in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Cox claims that it has an agreement in principle with Allbritton for retransmission consent for the TV station, but the broadcaster has refused to sign that deal unless Cox accepts what it calls "onerous carriage terms" for Allbritton's NewsChannel 8.
Cox is suggesting the use of professional mediation to resolve the conflict. But in response to Cox's refusal to remove WJLA, Allbritton warned the cable operator that "continued carriage of WJLA beyond the contract expiration date exposes you to significant liability for theft of services, copyright infringement and FCC sanctions. ... We will reserve our rights to seek all appropriate damages."
Last Monday [Oct. 1], Allbritton notified Cox by letter that it would no longer have permission to carry WJLA as of midnight Oct. 6, this past Sunday.
Retransmission consent for WJLA has been tied to Cox's carrying Allbritton's local news channel. The old retransmission-consent deal for WJLA expired almost two years ago, but both sides had agreed that the station be carried on cable on a month-to-month basis until a renewal pact was worked out.
A 10-year carriage deal for NewsChannel 8 expires Oct. 6.
Last Friday, Cox told Allbritton that legally it required at least 30 days notice before it could drop WJLA, and the Oct. 1 letter doesn't suffice.
"We do not believe that notice was valid nor that we are required to drop WJLA-TV as of this date [Oct. 6]," Cox general manager Gary McCollum wrote Allbritton president Frederick Ryan. "Moreover, we are not permitted to do so under the FCC's rules and the Cable Act. We believe under no circumstances could it be construed that five days' notice to delete the signal is reasonable."
The Federal Communications Commission requires that subscribers be given 30 days notice if a station is dropped, so Cox contends that even if it notified its customers immediately, that would take it into November — a sweeps period.
"The FCC has made clear that cable operators are not permitted to drop a broadcast station during the sweeps period," McCollum said in his letter. "Consequently, we cannot legally comply with your demand to cease carriage of WJLA until after the November sweeps."
Since NewsChannel 8 is carried by fiber — and its delivery is directly controlled by Allbritton — it will be up to the broadcaster to decide if it wants to pull the network from Cox's Fairfax system, according to Scott Broyles, vice president of public and government affairs for Cox Communications of Northern Virginia.
Allbritton and Cox have different takes on the events leading to last week's standoff.
Allbritton has closed 10-year renewals for WJLA and NewsChannel 8 with all of the cable operators in the Washington DMA except Cox — including Comcast Corp., the major player, Ryan said.
"We've offered Cox the same deal as all of them for the Washington services, WJLA and NewsChannel 8," he said.
The new contract for WJLA and NewsChannel 8 includes license-fee increases for the news channel over the term of the pact, Ryan said. He would not say what the new rate card is.
Cox disputes Ryan's characterization of the standoff, saying Allbritton has "misleadingly suggested it is offering Cox the same favorable terms as it has signed with other cable providers in the Washington area. If that were the case, Cox would have already signed the renewal agreement."
If the dispute isn't resolved, one of the subscribers who could be losing ABC programming such as Monday Night Football
is FCC Cable Services Bureau chief W. Kenneth Ferree.
This isn't Cox's first retransmission-consent battle with a broadcaster in the Washington suburbs. At the start of 2000, Cox and Fox Broadcasting Co. engaged in a retransmission-consent feud. Fox wound up pulling its signal for WTTG-TV for several days, and it went off cable.