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FCC wants proof Fox and Cablevision are trying to make a deal

The companies, mired in a very public dispute over programming fees, are reminded of their obligation to negotiate in good faith and asked to provide details of their talks.

October 23, 2010|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times

A senior Federal Communications Commission official wants to know whether Fox and Cablevision are negotiating in good faith or are spending all their time running attack ads against each other.

It has been almost a week since News Corp. yanked the signals of its Fox television stations in New York and Philadelphia from about 3 million Cablevision Systems Corp. homes in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. So far, the two companies are nowhere near reaching a deal, frustrating consumers and angering politicians.

In a letter to Chase Carey, chief operating officer of News Corp., and James Dolan, chief executive of Cablevision, FCC Media Bureau Chief William Lake asked both companies to provide details of their negotiations to the regulatory agency so it can determine whether the sides are truly interested in getting a deal done.

"I know that you are aware that both broadcasters and multichannel video programming distributors have a statutory duty to engage in 'good-faith' negotiations," Lake wrote, adding that if either company was "aware of any conduct by the other side that you believe violates the good faith requirement, please so indicate and provide supporting evidence."

The letter from Lake comes just days after FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski released a statement criticizing the behavior of both parties and accusing them of being more interested in trading insults in the media and lobbying politicians than finding common ground and cutting a deal.

How much detail of the heated talks either Fox or Cablevision will be willing to disclose to a government agency remains to be seen. Fox would only say it would respond to the FCC letter while a Cablevision representative said the company welcomed the agency's intervention.

"Whether through FCC action, binding arbitration or any other means, the time has come for News Corp to end the Fox blackout of 3 million Cablevision households," the representative said.

At the same time the FCC made public its letter to the two companies, Fox again blasted Cablevision, saying, "it's becoming clear that Cablevision believes Fox has very limited value to their customers." Fox advised Cablevision subscribers who want to see the network's coverage of the World Series to "switch providers or purchase an over-the-air antenna now."

Cablevision has said it is willing to let a third-party arbitrator settle the dispute. Fox has rejected that option, partly because if the ruling were to lead to a lower fee than what other distributors are currently paying for Fox's TV signals, the company would have to renegotiate its deals with some of those distributors.

Although the FCC has little direct influence over the negotiations, the longer the fight drags on the more of a push there will be from politicians to change the laws that govern how broadcasters and distributors negotiate in a way that will give the FCC more clout. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has already said he plans to introduce such legislation.

Lake reminded both companies that their dispute has affected "millions of innocent consumers who expect to watch their preferred broadcast programming without interruption." Lake set a response deadline of Monday.

joe.flint@latimes.com

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