FCC steps in to help TV blackout dispute

The Federal Communications Commission is stepping in to help resolve a dispute between Dish and Sinclair Broadcast Group that has led to one of the largest TV channel blackouts in history.  

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler ordered an emergency meeting Wednesday between the agency’s media bureau and the two companies to try and resolve the dispute. 

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“We will not stand idly by while millions of consumers in 79 markets across the country are being denied access to local programming,” Wheeler said. “The Commission will always act within the scope of its authority if it emerges that improper conduct is preventing a commercial resolution of the dispute.”

Nearly 130 local stations in markets in 36 states and Washington, D.C., went dark for Dish customers as the satellite company negotiates with Sinclair to carry its broadcast programing. 

Included in that are major local broadcast stations such as CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox, according to The Wall Street Journal

Dish said it had agreed to the terms and rates to cary Sinclair stations, but the holdout is over Sinclair’s insistence on an agreement for Dish to carry another channel that Sinclair hopes to acquire “but does not own today.”

Dish refiled a complaint with the FCC that Sinclair is negotiating in bad faith, a violation of agency rules if true. In an earlier complaint this month, Dish accused Sinclair of refusing to enter retransmission negotiations unless it could negotiate agreements for its stations and for 32 others that are in the same markets. 

Sinclair accused Dish of “spinning the facts” and said it is not interested in negotiating the deal through the press. It accused Dish of using the dispute as leverage as the FCC reviews its rules about good faith retransmission negotiations. 

Wheeler last month said he circulated a notice of proposed rulemaking that will undertake “a robust examination of practices used by parties in retransmission consent negotiations.”

Sinclair allies such as the National Association of Broadcasters accused Dish of trying to “manufacture” the dispute to gain attention at the FCC. Other Dish critics note the company has been involved in more than 40 percent of retransmission blackouts in the past few years. 

But critics of Sinclair say the rising number of blackouts is the result of broadcasters tying retransmission of local TV stations to higher rates for cable and online content.