Meanwhile, Kerry moves forward with retrans law revamp

As Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) stepped up his effort to make legislative changes to the retransmission consent laws, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has scolded Cablevision and Fox for publicly sparring while the blackout of Fox’s stations for Cablevision subscribers stretched into its fourth day.

“I am deeply troubled that Cablevision and Fox are spending more time attacking each other through ads and lobbyists than sitting down at the negotiating table. The time for petty gamesmanship is over,” Genachowski said in a statement.

“I have called the CEOs of both companies and reiterated the importance of reaching a deal, as many companies have done before. I reminded the companies that they share responsibility for consumer disruption, and that they shouldn’t punish consumers because of their unwillingness to reach a deal. I also insisted that they negotiate in good faith. We will continue to scrutinize their actions very closely.”

Numerous lawmakers and others have called on the FCC in recent days to intervene in the contract dispute that knocked Fox’s WNYW and WWOR New York off of Cablevision’s systems just after midnight Saturday. Cablevision has also pushed for arbitration in the dispute as a means to preserve the signals for its 3 million subscribers in the New York area.

Kerry on Saturday vowed to introduce legislation to mandate that retrans disputes be taken to a third party arbitrator and that signals cannot be pulled while negotiations are ongoing. He sent a copy of his draft legislation to Genachowski on Tuesday that spelled out numerous steps before a broadcaster could pull a signal.

“The process we are trying to effect is two party negotiations that have a big impact on an unrepresented third party; consumers,” Kerry wrote in a letter to Genachowski. “The goal is to offer a path to potential resolution of differences and protect consumers. It would stave off the termination of carriage on expiration of an agreement and allow signals to continue transmitting until the FCC evaluates the behavior of the parties and recommends or does not recommend binding arbitration during which carriage would continue.”

Genachowski has so far declined comment on the growing call for the FCC to get involved in the commission, probably because there are still doubts as to whether the FCC at present has the legal authority to make such a move. Tuesday’s statement was the strongest statement he’s made so far but it still stops short of threatening official action.

Cablevision and Fox execs broke off negotiations on Monday with no additional face to face meetings set. On Tuesday, the war of words between the sides continued apace.

Said Charles Schueler, Cablevision’s exec veep of communications: “Both parties have a position, but only Cablevision has joined with more than 50 government leaders with a solution, binding arbitration under the direction of a neutral third party. By now it should be clear even to News Corp. that binding arbitration is the fastest and fairest way to return Fox programming to our customers.”

Fox issued a statement that offered lengthy examples of Cablevision’s past efforts to reject arbitration as a remedy for business disputes, including a pending issue at the FCC involving Cablevision’s MSG Network and rival satcaster Dish Network.

“The startling hypocrisy of Cablevision’s position — demanding one set of rules for itself, the exact opposite set of rules for Fox – proves that it will say and do anything to protect its profits,” Fox said in a statement.

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