Sens. Urge FCC to Settle Sinclair-Mediacom Dispute

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The leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin urging the agency to help resolve the dispute between Mediacom Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group before Super Bowl weekend.

“We strongly urge you and the other members of the [FCC] to actively engage to resolve this dispute. At a minimum, Americans should not be shut off from broadcast programming while the matter is being negotiated among the parties and is awaiting action by the full [FCC] on appeal,” the letter said.

The letter, dated Tuesday, was signed by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and ranking member Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who expressed concern that cable subscribers might lose access to Sunday’s Super Bowl on CBS.

The lawmakers urged “immediate action to resolve this dispute, which could include binding arbitration.”

The bipartisan letter was released by Inouye’s office one day before Martin, a Republican Bush appointee, is scheduled to testify before the committee on a wide range of subjects, likely including the bargaining between cable and TV stations in a process called retransmission consent. Democrats control the 23-member panel by one vote.

Mediacom chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso said the Inouye-Stevens letter supports his company's longtime contention that the FCC should intervene in the ongoing retransmission-consent dispute.

"This is bipartisan here," Commisso said of the letter. "It's not Democrats going after Martin."

Added Commisso, "[The letter is] everything that Mediacom has been saying for months. It's just unfair that while we have had a proceeding before the FCC asking the full FCC to rule on the order and go out and exhaust all our appeals available under the law, 2 million American viewers are being deprived of over-the-air television at the end of the day in Mediacom's systems. It's just unfortunate that the FCC has failed to act under the law and follow the express mandate of Congress to first take care of the public interest and then everybody else."

Commisso once again called for Sinclair CEO Dave Smith to join him in testifying, under oath, before Congress about their dispute.

Also Wednesday, Iowa’s state congressional leadership wrote a letter to Martin urging the FCC to intervene in the Mediacom-Sinclair dispute.

Sinclair shot back its own letter to Inouye and Stevens Wednesday. Allowing Mediacom to carry Sinclair’s stations without the broadcaster’s consent is “in direct contravention” of current retransmission-consent law, Sinclair general counsel Barry Faber wrote.

“While I can appreciate your desire to make sure that the public is not inconvenienced by this situation, I hope you can understand the danger of suggesting that the government should order private parties to enter into an agreement when they are not able to reach agreement on their own,” Faber wrote.

“Finally, I would like to make you aware that I believe that any suggestion, such as the one contained in your letter, that government intervention will be forthcoming has had a chilling effect on the ability of the parties to reach a mutually acceptable agreement on their own,” he added.

Mediacom, and Commisso, issued its own lengthy response to Sinclair’s letter Thursday, accusing Sinclair of “unmitigated arrogance.”

In its prepared statement, Mediacom said, “Sinclair does not seem to grasp the fact that its business is built on the use of the public airwaves and that it is abusing a public trust.”

Mediacom this week also disclosed that it is raising rates for some customers starting in March. The cable operator is hiking fees for some of its digital customers, Internet service and premium services.

On Jan. 6, Sinclair pulled its TV signals from Mediacom following a breakdown in negotiations. The FCC refused to intervene after finding that Sinclair had not bargained in bad faith. The commission also said it didn’t have authority to order binding arbitration under the law.

The dispute, close to entering its second month, is affecting 700,000 Mediacom subscribers. Sinclair pulled 23 stations, including affiliates of Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, The CW and My Network TV.

In their letter, Inouye and Stevens said they believe the FCC had the power to order binding arbitration, citing an exchange on the Senate floor in the early 1990s between Inouye and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Evidently, Inouye and Stevens also believe that the FCC may order Sinclair to permit Mediacom to carry the signals during the arbitration period.