Mediacom subs scramble for alternatives

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- Thousands of central Iowa cable subscribers lined up Tuesday for free television antennas because they couldn't get the local Fox network affiliate, the result of a dispute between Mediacom Communications Corp. and Sinclair Broadcast Group.

At Mediacom's office about a mile from downtown Des Moines, the rush to get the small rabbit-ear units caused a traffic jam as hundreds of cars pulled up curbside to get the antennas.

Mediacom hired two off-duty police officers to direct traffic.

Customers voiced their displeasure with the dispute that has left subscribers in Des Moines without their Fox affiliate and those in Cedar Rapids in eastern Iowa without a CBS station.

"I was disappointed," said construction worker Gary Seaney, who lives on the east side of Des Moines. "It upsets me a lot because I'm paying the same price, but now I've got to get up and flip my TV every time I want another channel."

The company replenished its supply of the small set-top antennas Tuesday after distributing more than 4,000 antennas last week. The company declined to say how many more antennas were ordered or how much the effort had cost.

Hunt Valley, Md.-based Sinclair pulled 22 of its television stations from Mediacom cable systems in 13 states at midnight Friday, leaving about 700,000 cable subscribers without access through their cable subscriptions to network affiliated stations.

Sinclair took the action because it couldn't reach an agreement with Mediacom on how much the cable provider would pay to carry Sinclair's stations. Court documents filed early in the dispute indicated the difference between Sinclair's asking price and Mediacom's offer was about $1 million.

Sinclair general counsel Barry Faber would only say Tuesday that the company is asking for very low compensation compared to what cable companies pay other networks, such as ESPN. Faber said some networks receive up to $3 per month per subscriber.

Faber said cable companies in general pay more than 50 cents a month per subscriber for stations with lower ratings than some of the Sinclair stations.

"We're asking for far less than that," he said.

Mediacom officials said they viewed the rush for antennas as a sign that their customers do not want to cancel their cable subscription and opt for satellite television. Sinclair has encouraged such a switch.

"We really view this as a strong vote from our customers that they prefer this option," said Mediacom spokeswoman Phyllis Peters. "They absolutely do not want to see a broadcaster like Sinclair go for excessive fees for what is free over the air."

The Sinclair stations pulled from Mediacom include six Fox affiliates, four ABC affiliates, four CW affiliates, one CBS affiliate, one NBC affiliate and six affiliates of MyNetworkTV.

Many subscribers in Des Moines had to scramble Monday night to see second-ranked Florida beat the Ohio State Buckeyes 41-14 in college football's national championship aired on the Fox network.

Some customers picking up antennas Tuesday had missed the game.

"My concern is the sports channel," said Larry Helton, of Des Moines. "Like last night that bowl game, they didn't have it in the paper, so I didn't think it was on and I missed it."

Sandy Hull, of Des Moines, said she would cancel her Mediacom subscription if she wasn't satisfied with reception on the antenna.

"They want us to pay the full price, they should have to pay what they have to pay," she said.

Iowa has the largest concentration of customers effected by the dispute. Mediacom said about 400,000 subscribers in Iowa have at least one Sinclair station on their cable system. However, the number of customers affected by the dispute is significantly lower because many cable subscribers have more than one network affiliate available to them on their cable system.

Mediacom has pushed Sinclair to agree to binding arbitration to settle the differences.

Sinclair said it's considering arbitration, but isn't leaning toward a quick resolution.

"There is a very real chance this will continue for a long, long time," Faber said. He said arbitration is an unusual way for businesses to settle differences.

Faber said his company is not concerned about loss of advertising revenue if its stations affected by the dispute lose viewers.

He said Mediacom's distribution of antennas helps keep its customer base intact.

In addition, he said slightly more than half of the television viewers in Des Moines are cable subscribers. About 30% get their television stations through satellite television and 20% watch through an antenna over the air. That means half the viewers in Des Moines are unaffected by the Mediacom situation, he said.

Middletown, N.Y.-based Mediacom said it has filed documents with the FCC, asking for a review of a decision last week in which the FCC's media bureau concluded Sinclair's actions "were not indicative of a lack of good faith."

A Washington cable industry trade group, the American Cable Assn., asked Congress to rewrite laws authorizing retransmission agreements so they cannot be used by television station owners as "a mechanism to extract hundreds of millions of dollars from smaller market consumers."

"The American Cable Assn. believes Congress must act now to right these wrongs. As the Sinclair decision makes painfully clear, the FCC will not intercede," the ACA said.

It said Congress should immediately ask Sinclair to restore its television signals and stop pulling them from cable customers.
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