The retransmission-consent dispute between Suddenlink Communications and two Charleston, W.Va., broadcast stations shifted to Washington, D.C., last week, with the Federal Communications Commission beginning the process of resolving the dispute.
The FCC wants both parties — cable company Suddenlink and Sinclair Broadcasting Group — to submit documents outlining any ex parte discussions they might have had with the commission. FCC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher called that the first step in the agency’s review process.
Suddenlink bought the Charleston systems, with about 240,000 subscribers, from Charter Communications Inc. for $800 million, closing the deal July 1.
Sinclair owns two TV stations in Charleston: Fox affiliate WVAH and ABC affiliate WCHS. It wants Suddenlink to accept retransmission-consent terms — a one-time $40 million upfront fee and $1 per month per subscriber — or to drop the stations.
Suddenlink hasn’t agreed to the terms and asked the Federal Communications Commission to force Sinclair to keep the stations on its cable properties at least until the July 27 end of the Nielsen Media Research sweeps period. FCC regulations bar cable companies from dropping broadcast channels during sweeps periods, when viewer ratings are used to calculate advertising rates.
Suddenlink also bought ad time on several local Charleston radio stations owned by the West Virginia Radio Corp. — including one called WCHS-AM but not affiliated with Sinclair — to spur customers to complain to the stations.
In one-minute ads, a deep-voiced announcer utters “40 million dollars” while the “cha-ching” sound of a ringing cash register echoes in the background. “That’s roughly what the Sinclair Broadcast Group wants to charge cable TV customers for the right to watch two Charleston TV stations.”
The announcer declares that Suddenlink is seeking alternative ways to provide ABC and Fox programming to customers in Charleston, without saying what those alternatives might be. Customers are urged to contact WCAH and WVAH to express concern.
Because of federal rules protecting local broadcasters, cable companies cannot import out-of-market broadcasters’ signals without obtaining retransmission-consent agreements and without following rules that mandate blacking out network and syndicated programming. Cable companies have lobbied to revise those rules, in part at least to match satellite-TV companies’ ability to import distant signals.
Suddenlink could provide customers with off-air antennas, although in the Charleston area the mountains might hamper reception.
Suddenlink vice president of government relations Pete Abel declined to comment on alternatives, but said Suddenlink would not do anything that’s not permitted by the FCC. He said the two Sinclair stations remain on Suddenlink’s Charleston system, but will be pulled off after the end of the July ratings sweeps (July 27) unless the FCC intervenes or an agreement is reached.
Sinclair is running a crawl during certain broadcasts, informing customers the stations might be unavailable soon and giving contact information for direct-broadcast satellite services DirecTV Inc. and Dish Network.
WEB SITE MISSIVES
WCHS and WVAH posted a letter to viewers on their Web sites, claiming the stations have tried to negotiate with Suddenlink, but any offers from the cable operator were inferior to existing deals Suddenlink has elsewhere with Sinclair.
“It is unfortunate that our viewers are stuck in the middle of this negotiation,” WVAH and WCHS general manager Harold Cooper said in the Web letter. “It is also unfortunate that Suddenlink doesn’t want to pay for an asset — the signals of WCHS and WVAH — which they want to use in order to sell their services to you. To solve this problem, Suddenlink needs to hear from you.”
Fisher declined to speculate when the FCC would make a decision on the matter, saying every dispute is different. Abel wouldn’t speculate on when the FCC might make a decision. “We are certainly asking the commission to be mindful of the current realities of the timing and to act accordingly as they are able to do so within their rules,” Abel said.