Mediacom Communications’ retransmission consent battle with LIN Media dragged into its fourth week last week with no clear end in sight.
All the while, the small-market MSO continues to hammer home its retrans-reform message in Washington and has stepped up its efforts to keep subscribers on the monthly rolls.
Eight LIN stations in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama and Indiana went dark on Aug. 31 after the parties could not reach an agreement on proposed retransmissionrate increases. Two more stations were added to the mix on Sept. 6 when a one-week extension for stations in Norfolk, Va., to allow affected viewers to continue to receive local news coverage of Hurricane Irene in that area expired.
PACKER FANS IN DARK
LIN pulled Fox affiliates WALA-WFNA in Mobile, Ala.- Pensacola, Fla.; WOOD (NBC) and WOTV (ABC) in Grand Rapids, Mich.; WANE (CBS) in Fort Wayne, Ind.; WLUK (Fox) in Green Bay, Wisc.; WTHI (CBS) in Terre Haute, Ind.; and WLFI (CBS) in Lafayette, Ind., at 5 p.m. local time on Aug. 31.
Mediacom has claimed that LIN is asking for increases of 200% to 300% for its channels, an increase that the MSO said its customers could not bear. LIN has said it is simply asking for an increase that better reflects its value. Mediacom has also petitioned the Federal Communications Commission, asking for sweeping retrans reform including prohibiting broadcasters from blacking out stations during negotiations and allowing distributors to import distant broadcast signals when talks break down. So far, the FCC has declined to take any specific action on the matter, although retrans reform remains on its fall agenda.
Mediacom group vice president of legal and public affairs Thomas Larsen said the impact of the retrans fight hasn’t led to a mass exodus of customers. But the company has created some incentives to keep subscribers on the rolls, he said, especially football fans that have missed out on the first three weeks of the National Football League season.
“We have received a number of customer calls, but for the most part we have been able to convince those customers to stay with us,” Larsen said. That has included offering some incentive discounts, like three free months of its digital-plus tier, coinciding with the launch of the NFL Network, and free previews of Showtime and Starz premium channels.
Larsen added that another advantage for Mediacom is that customers in these markets have been through this before.
“In the biggest market, Mobile/Pensacola, this is the fifth broadcaster that has shut off in five years,” Larsen said. “This is not something new. They are used to seeing the ads and the messaging.”
Mediacom has been able to calm some football fans with the NFL Network and the Big Ten Network — Larsen said that there are more rabid college fans in those markets. But baseball fans may be left out in the cold if the retrans spat lasts much longer into October.
The first round of the Major League Baseball playoffs — the American League and National League Division Series — are scheduled to start Sept. 30 and will be televised on cable network TBS, so that shouldn’t be a problem for Mediacom subscribers if the spat continues. But the next round could pose problems: the American League Championship Series scheduled to begin Oct. 8 will air on Fox. The National League Championship Series, starting Oct. 9, will be televised on TBS. Looking ahead, the World Series is slated to begin Oct. 19 on Fox.
LIN spokeswoman Courtney Guertin said the parties remain in negotiations, but there has been no new progress to report.
“We have heard from many of our viewers that they don’t want to go without our stations’ local news, weather, sports and local and national programming,” Guertin said. “Viewers are also very aware that they have choices when it comes to multichannel providers.”
Despite continuing to meet with FCC commissioners — Mediacom has used the LIN dispute to emphasize its push for the agency to invoke real retrans reform — Larsen said that its retrans troubles are largely being ignored.
WHY NO OUTCRY?
Larsen pointed to last year’s retrans battle between Cablevision Systems and Fox owned-and-operated stations in the New York area during the baseball playoffs and World Series, which received national press attention and criticism from federal lawmakers and FCC commissioners alike. That dispute was resolved after about two weeks — just in time for Game 3 of the World Series.
“There hasn’t been a political outcry yet,” Larsen said. “That’s hard to understand. I certainly think that the consumer in Alabama is as important as the consumer in New York.”