Mediacom Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group may gain a short break from the negotiations of their retransmission-consent dispute.
The parties, at presstime Thursday afternoon, were in talks about an eight-day extension that would enable the operator's subscribers to keep watching Sinclair stations past the expiration of their Dec. 31 midnight deadline.
Mediacom vice president of legal and public affairs Thomas Larsen told Multichannel News that the operator is "in discussions with Sinclair. We trying to work out the details of an extension."
Larsen said such a deal would enable subscribers in Iowa to see the Orange Bowl, featuring the Iowa Hawkeyes and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on Jan. 5. Similarly, the operator's customers in Alabama would not be displaced when the Crimson Tide battles the University of Texas in the national championship game on Jan. 7.
"It's certainly important, especially to Iowans with the Orange Bowl and with Alabama in the BCS national title game," said Larsen.
Mediacom chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso in a letter sent to Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) today indicated that Sinclair on Wednesday night made its "first tentative indication they might consider a very short-term extension of our agreement."
Kerry, chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on communications, had sent a letter to Mediacom and Sinclair on Wednesday, asking that the broadcaster enable the operator to continue transmitting programming into the New Year.
According to a report in the Des Moines Register, Sinclair vice president Barry Faber
said he had not seen Kerry's missive.
"We're not responding to politicians, we're responding to request of viewers," he said in the report.
Sinclair officials could not be reached for comment by presstime.
Under terms of the extension being discussed, Mediacom would pay the price increase Sinclair is seeking under a new retransmission-consent proposal. Larsen, who said Mediacom has been willing to foot the higher bill in its offer to gain a 90-day extension, put Sinclair's asking price at 50% above current levels. Larsen declined to disclose the base.
A copy of the full text of Commisso's letter to Kerry can be found below:
The Honorable John Kerry
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510-2102
Dear Senator Kerry:
I am pleased to respond to your letter of December 30, 2009, concerning the retransmission consent agreement between Mediacom and Sinclair that is due to expire at midnight tonight. Mediacom shares fully your concerns about consumers being harmed if they are unable to continue receiving Sinclair station programming on and after New Year's Day. I personally wish to confirm our strong support for, and willingness to agree to, any of the interim measures recommended in your letter for preserving the public's uninterrupted access to those stations.
Indeed, even before receiving your letter, Mediacom had for weeks been actively urging Sinclair, both directly and through the FCC, to agree to an extension of the current carriage agreement on terms that would hold Sinclair harmless for the period of interim carriage. Mediacom also has communicated its willingness to participate in FCC-supervised arbitration to bring this matter to a successful resolution without consumers experiencing any disruption of service. However, as recently as yesterday afternoon, Sinclair was still rejecting our proposals and signaling its complete unwillingness to consider an interim carriage solution while the parties continue to negotiate the terms of a longer term agreement.
I now can report that, most likely as a result of your letter, Mediacom received from Sinclair late last night the first tentative indication that they might consider a very short-term extension of our agreement. Hopefully, this will lead to a process that will achieve the objective of protecting consumers' access to programming while the parties (through FCC-supervised arbitration if necessary) work out a longer term retransmission consent agreement. We will keep you informed of our progress.
Mediacom, of course, has a unique perspective on the issues raised in your letter. In January 2007, Sinclair forced Mediacom to discontinue carriage of its signals for 28 days, causing enormous harm to over 700,000 households in 11 states around the country. Many of those who were adversely affected - and will be adversely affected again if history is allowed to repeat itself - are senior citizens and low income families that rely on Mediacom's most basic level of service for their news and entertainment programming. With the digital transition, these customers are at even greater risk of losing their ability to stay connected to their communities and the rest of the nation through their access to local and national network programming.
Three years ago, despite being urged to do so by Senators Inouye and Stevens, the FCC declined to step in and use the authority it clearly has to order interim carriage and other measures to protect the public. Mediacom is greatly encouraged by your recent statement indicating that you share the views expressed by Senators Inouye and Stevens in this regard. If Sinclair is unwilling to consider an approach that truly addresses the concerns that you have raised, we would strongly urge you to ask the FCC to mandate carriage and supervised arbitration as a means of protecting consumers.
Mediacom wishes to stress that situations like the one in which we find ourselves with Sinclair have been the exception not the rule. For example, in just the past year, Mediacom has successfully completed retransmission consent negotiations with dozens of broadcasters representing hundreds of stations. But unless there is remedy for dealing with those broadcasters who will use any means, including holding consumers hostage to force capitulation to their outrageous retransmission consent demands, there will be more and more situations like the one we are facing with Sinclair and Time Warner Cable is facing with FOX. As you aptly suggest, what we are dealing with here is a public good and when negotiations break down it is the duty of all those involved - broadcasters, cable operators, and the government - to place the interests of consumers at the center of our work.
Thus, we share the view expressed by Glenn Britt, CEO of Time Warner Cable, in his letter of December 29, 2009: the retransmission consent process is in need of reform. Consumers are being used as pawns and are ultimately being forced to pay higher prices as a result. I stand ready to work with you to seek ways to address these issues, through hearings and legislative proposals as well as through more rigorous action by the FCC to protect consumers.
Rocco B. Commisso
cc: David D. Smith, President & CEO
Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc.