Retrans Reform Advocates Call For Government To Step In

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As the Oct. 16 deadline for a Fox/Cablevision disconnect approached, groups pushing for retrans reform weighed in with calls for the government to step in.

Public Knowledge called for at least keeping the programming on the air during negotiations while the parties "consider the use of arbitration," according to president Gigi Sohn.

Public Knowledge was part of a group of petitioners that included cable operators, satellite operators and others calling on the FCC to mandate standstill agreements to keep programming on the air, and outside arbitration to help resolve the disputes. PK also sought "transparency for all retransmission consent contracts, and a requirement that retransmission consent licenses be on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms."

"Now, New York area viewers may not see their Yankees in the American League playoffs, or the New York Giants play regular season games, if Cablevision doesn't reach agreements with three New York channels by tomorrow (Oct. 15)," she said, adding that it could "also affect the Phillies in the National League Championship series."

Fress Press, another group that has argued the retrans marketplace is broken, weighed in at the FCC Thursday in an letter to chairman Julius Genachowski.

Citing the Fox/Cablevision impasse but hearkening back to earlier tough retrans negotiations between Mediacom and Sinclair, Fox and Time Warner and ABC and Cablevision, Free Press said that while it takes no position on the merits of those disputes, "to the extent that these situations inject uncertainty or result in the pulling of programming that consumers have paid for and expect to receive, the Commission must intervene to protect the public." Free press took the opportunity to push for arbitration as well mandatory break-outs of per-channel pricing, including retrans costs for TV station signals, and as a la carte.

"When such negotiations devolve into an industry game of chicken that threatens to leave consumers in the lurch, it is clear that the market is not properly functioning." Arbitration, price transparency and a la carte, Free Press policy counsel Corie Wright argues in the letter, "would shift the balance of power to consumers and give them the freedom to choose and pay for only those channels they want."

Genachowski said Thursday that the FCC was working with the parties to help get a deal done, but also that they recognized the consequences of not doing so, though he did not elaborate.

Cablevision has agreed to arbitration, while Fox says that would "reward Cablevision for refusing to negotiate fairly and will only ensure that more unnecessary disputes arise in the future."

The FCC has been reluctant to get in the middle of retrans fights--beyond urging them to be resolved and pointing to the consumer impact--viewing them as marketplace negotiations unless it can be established that either side is not bargaining in good faith.

Both sides said at press time they were continuing to negotiate.

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