Allbritton, Comcast Reach Retrans Deal

Published May 31, 2016

A recently completed broadcast retransmission deal ensures viewers in several major U.S. markets will retain their access to ABC network television programming.

The late January deal between media conglomerate Allbritton’s and cable provider Comcast prevented a potential blackout of ABC programs for viewers in Washington DC; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.; Lynchburg, Virginia.; Charleston, South Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; and Little Rock, Arkansas.

Comcast also renewed its carriage agreement with Allbritton’s cable news channel, TBD TV (formerly NewsChannel 8) in Washington, DC. Both were long-term deals, though not the same length. The companies declined to reveal other details of the agreement.

The parties came to terms in late December but didn’t finalize those agreements until nearly three weeks later, according to Jerry Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications.

‘Only a Matter of Time’

Unlike other well-publicized deals involving Fox, Cablevision, AT&T U-verse, and Scripps, the deal was signed before viewers missed any programming. Earlier impasses weren’t resolved until after retransmissions were stopped at least temporarily.

Disputes over fees caused a handful of blackouts in 2010, the most since 2000, and affected some 19 million pay-TV subscribers.

As retransmission prices rise, programming is moving away from broadcast networks. According to a recent report in the Hollywood Reporter, it’s only a matter of time before the Super Bowl, which in 2011 was the most watched program of all time, will be broadcast exclusively on the Disney-owned ESPN cable network.

In 2016, the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four will be seen exclusively on cable. Other programming also is moving in that direction, and traditional broadcast stations are struggling to keep the attention of an increasingly fragmented market.

‘Seeking Long-Term Associates’

Opponents of the Comcast-NBCU merger expressed concerns the deal would lead to additional retransmission disagreements after it was approved by the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice in January. The Allbritton-Comcast deal suggests the concerns in this instance were unfounded.

“Coincidentally, we signed the deals the same day that the FCC and Justice Department approved the Comcast-NBCU merger,” Fritz said in announcing the deal.

The agreement demonstrates broadcasters and cable firms can work out acceptable deals, said Steve Titch, a telecom policy analyst for the Los Angeles -based Reason Foundation. “Comcast doesn’t have any interest in wiping out local broadcasters. What they want are long-term, future broadcast associates.”

However, Titch said, the broadcast media are in flux as an increasing proportion of viewers receives programming from the Internet and time-shifts its viewing habits through use of DVRs and on-demand Web broadcasts. Local stations are losing much of their viewership to this trend, he said, and broadcast and retransmission agreements could change to recognize the altered viewing environment, though nothing immediate is in the works.

The current agreements are under the rules established in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which Dan Issett, director of public policy for the Parents Television Council, calls a government-instituted scheme and a loser for consumers.

“The only real solution here is to let the market work and let consumers decide what programming they want to pay for,” he said.

Phil Britt
([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.