Mediacom Tries Shaming FCC Into Action in Retrans Spat

Cable operator says regulator only cares about big market blackouts

Perhaps Mediacom Communications can shame the Federal Communications Commission into intervening in its 14-day retransmission standoff with LIN TV. In the second strongly worded letter it's sent to the commission since LIN TV's stations went dark in seven of its markets, Mediacom's counsel on Tuesday all but accused the FCC of playing favorites, stepping into retransmission disputes only when audiences in the big, high-profile markets are affected.

"Unfortunately, the Commission thus far has chosen not to give this interruption the same level of attention as it has given past blackouts that impacted viewers in major metropolitan areas (such as Fox's denial of its programming to Cablevision's subscribers in the New York City metropolitan area last fall," wrote Mediacom lawyer Seth Davidson, of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge.

The letter follows a familiar pattern. Mediacom's first letter to the FCC, sent Sept. 1 by Rocco Commisso, Mediacom's fiery chairman and CEO, called the commission's reluctance to make substantial reforms in the retransmission negotiation process "inexplicable."

"There is no excuse for the Commission not to at least try to assert its vast authority," Commisso wrote. "There is nothing to lose if its actions are successfully challenged in court and much to gain if, as we fully expect, its authority is confirmed by the courts."

Even though the FCC opened up a proceeding in March to make some changes in the retransmission process, the commission has contended that it has limited authority to directly prevent blackouts. So far, the FCC has not publicly put the item on its monthly meeting agenda.

Since Aug. 31, tens of thousands of consumers have been unable to tune in LIN TV stations on Mediacom cable systems in Pensacola, Fla.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, and Lafayette, Ind.; Green Bay, Wisc.; and Norfolk, Va. (Consumers can still receive the signals over the air.)

In the weeks since Mediacom's retransmission consent contract with LIN TV expired, the two companies have waged the usual retransmission war of words.

Mediacom claims LIN is asking for a "massive fee increase." LIN says it is seeking "fair market value" for the carriage of its stations and granted Mediacom a one-week contract extension for the stations in Norfolk so viewers could get local news coverage of Hurricane Irene. The company also offered Mediacom the rights to reinstate carriage of LIN's local news for the Mobile-Pensacola stations during the storm, but Mediacom turned down that offer.

LIN TV did not respond to a request for comment. 

Said one broadcast source in defense of LIN: "Mediacom has shown before that it is a master at manufacturing a phony retrans crisis. If it spent half as much time engaged in serious negotiations as it does writing hysterical letters to the FCC, Mediacom would reach a deal with LIN in five minutes."