Cablers form group to address retrans

Alliance asks FCC to ban transmission cutoffs during talks

Cranking up the pressure on the FCC to change the way broadcasters and cable operators negotiate retransmission consent, a group of 31 cable systems, satellite companies, independent programmers and consumer organizations have formed the American Television Alliance.

The group calls on the FCC to act now to prevent program blackout threats.

Members of the ATA include some of the largest cable MSOs, including Time Warner Cable, which is in the process of negotiating a new retransmission agreement with Disney. The current contract between the two expires Sept. 1.

Noticeably absent from the ATA is cable giant Comcast, which is proposing to acquire 51% of NBC Universal.

Under current law, broadcasters may pull their signal from a cable system, if the two parties fail to come to an agreement. Cable firms would prefer that the FCC remove that threat by requiring interim carriage of broadcast stations even if there is an impasse in negotiations.

"Today, viewers have a wide range of options for how they watch television, but there's still only one place to get network television programming, and the broadcasters are taking unfair advantage of this situation to the detriment of millions of consumers," said Thomas Cullen, executive vp sales, marketing and programming at Dish Network.

The issue between broadcasters and cable companies has been heating up since late last year when a number of high-profile retrans showdowns made headlines. Soon after the standoff in March between WABC, ABC's New York flagship, and Cablevision, which came close to leaving local viewers in the dark for the network's broadcast of the Academy Awards, 14 cable companies petitioned the FCC for revised retransmission-consent rules.

Broadcasters argue they are seeking fair compensation commensurate with the audience they bring to cable systems.

Although a handful of high-profile retransmission deals hit the news, the National Association of Broadcasters -- which responded Wednesday to the ATA with an e-mailed newsletter -- pointed out that 0.01% of pay-TV subscribers experience any disruption in TV viewing because of a retransmission impasse.

"The notion that Time Warner and its big pay TV allies are part of a group designed 'to protect consumers' is about as credible as BP executives joining Greenpeace," said Dennis Wharton, executive vp of the NAB. "It is not unreasonable for local TV stations to expect fair compensation for the most-watched shows on television."

Cable network owners also have continued to find themselves at an impasse with distributors over carriage agreements. As of late Wednesday, Cablevision's network division Rainbow Media and AT&T's U-verse service were looking for a new arrangement to continue carriage of popular networks including AMC -- whose fourth season of "Mad Men" premieres July 25 -- before a midnight deadline.

The showdown this time features Cablevision in the programmer's role after it was affected as a distributor this year in its showdown with Disney/ABC and a similar one with Scripps Networks.

"We have agreements with every other television provider in the country and have never had our networks dropped in more than 25 years," Rainbow said. "We are disappointed that AT&T is publicly threatening to take away our networks, including AMC just days before its 'Mad Men' season premiere."

Meanwhile, AT&T argued that Cablevision/Rainbow had made "unreasonable proposals" that would give Cablevision, which competes with U-verse, an "unfair competitive advantage." It argued that Cablevision is "trying to charge significantly more than the average of what our TV competitors pay for these channels."

THR's Georg Szalai contributed to this report.
comments powered by Disqus