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Dish calls in the lawyers again, and the FCC

Charlie Ergen’s Dish Network is in dispute with a major TV broadcaster. Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group is the USA’s biggest local broadcasting combine, owing or operating more than 150 local TV stations, mostly in the South and Midwest of the US. They reach some 30 per cent of US viewers, with 87 of the stations being important affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox. Dish supplies these signals on its ‘local into local’ spot beams for subscribers.
The dispute is over re-transmission fees, and the stations were threatened with blacking out on Dish’s satellite feeds at midnight on Saturday night (August 15) when the current agreement ended. Adding to the argument is a demand by Sinclair that Dish also negotiate the re-transmission fees of an additional 32 stations that Sinclair does not control.
The dispute – if the stations do end up going dark – would represent the largest-ever blackout of stations. Sinclair was running a crawl message on most of its stations Saturday, which read: “Attention DISH Network Subscribers. At the end of the day Saturday we expect DISH to stop carrying this station. The station will still be available on DirecTV, your local cable provider and for free over the air.”
Dish fired off a letter of complaint to the FCC claiming that Sinclair is not negotiating fairly, or legally. Dish argues that Sinclair is violating the FCC’s own rules that state both parties must act in “good faith”. Dish asked early on Saturday morning that the FCC issue an immediate injunction on Sinclair to keep the stations on air. The FCC rules (the ‘Good Faith Order’) forbid an approach which, in effect, allows one party to say: “Take it or leave it”.
Dish also charges that in violation of FCC regulation, Sinclair has assumed a unilateral stance to its negotiations, including the refusal of a contract extension so the parties can explore alternative paths toward an agreement.
Midnight Saturday passed and the stations stayed on air. Sunday saw both parties agree to a short-term contract extension to permit further talks to take place.
But the core dispute continues. While Charlie Ergen is no slouch when it comes to litigation, it is also true that Sinclair has a long – and successful – history of fighting its corner. Indeed, it emerged over the weekend that one of the Sinclair negotiators had threatened to keep the stations away from Dish subscribers for a full year, if that’s what it took to gain an agreement.

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