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New Coalition to Push FCC on Retransmission Issue

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Cranking up the pressure on the Federal Communications Commission to change how broadcasters and cable systems negotiate retransmission consent, a group of 31 cable systems, satellite companies, independent programmers, consumer organizations and cable associations have formed the American Television Alliance.

Taking out a full-page ad in The Washington Post and Communications Daily Wednesday (July 14) the new group calls on the FCC to act now to prevent blackout threats from broadcasters.

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.

Under the current law, broadcasters may pull their signal from a cable system, if the two parties fail to come to an agreement. Cable systems 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, evp of sales, marketing and programming for DISH Network.

The issue between broadcasters and cable companies has been heating up since late last year when a number of high profile retransmission negotiations hit the press. Soon after the standoff in March between WABC, ABC's New York flag ship and Cablevision in New York, which came close to leaving 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 only looking for fair compensation commensurate with the audience they bring to cable systems. While a handful of high-profile retransmission deals hit the news, the National Association of Broadcasters, which responded Wednesday to the ATA with an emailed newsletter, The Retrans Record, pointed out that 0.01 percent of pay-TV subscribers experience any disruption in TV viewing due to 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. Pay TV built its business on the backs of broadcast programming, and it is not unreasonable for local TV stations to expect fair compensation for the most-watched shows on television," said Dennis Wharton, evp of the NAB in a statement.

According to a NAB study from last year, cable profits increased five times the amount of their programming expenses during a three-year period.

Noticeably absent from the ATA is Comcast, whose proposed deal to acquire 51 percent of NBC Universal is under review by the FCC and the Department of Justice, and the NCTA, cable's largest lobbying organization.