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Retrans fireworks: Dish files FCC complaint against Sinclair

Just as the Federal Communications Commissions begins to open up its Congressionally-mandated proceeding on retransmission consent negotiations, Dish and Sinclair Broadcast Group are giving the agency something to chew on.

Dish filed a complaint with the FCC Saturday, accusing Sinclair of refusing to negotiate in good faith and of conducting negotiations for 32 TV stations it does not own in Sinclair markets.

If the parties do not reach agreement by midnight Saturday, 153 local stations in 121 markets could go dark at midnight Saturday.

“Sinclair is threatening the largest local channel blackout in the history of television,” Dish said in its complaint, noting that the TV group is running an on-air crawl message alerting viewers they can receive the signals via DirecTV or over-the-air for free.

Dish is asking the FCC to force Sinclair to agree to a short-term contract extension to keep the stations on Dish’s lineup until a new deal is reached. Dish also requests that the FCC grant a preliminary injunction to require Sinclair to cease coordinating negotiations.

The dispute could put to test the new Congressional law, passed with the reauthorization of the satellite TV reauthorization act, that prohibits joint negotiations by non-commonly-owned stations in the same market.

Dish said it had offered Sinclair an extension of the current contract under current rates while the two parties hash out new details, but Sinclair refused.

“Sinclair has… chosen to use innocent consumers as pawns to gain leverage for the economic benefit of Sinclair, while causing substantial harm and disruption to the lives of those very same consumers who ultimately will bear the brunt of the unfair price increases sought by Sinclair,” Jeff Blum, DISH senior vice president and deputy general counsel said in a statement.

The timing couldn’t be better for Dish and other retransmission reform advocates. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday circulated two critical proposals that might change the course of retransmission consent negotiations. The first, mandated by Congress, would review what constitutes “good faith” negotiations and could establish particular practices as “per se” violations. The second is an order to eliminate network non-duplication and syndication exclusivity rules, which could make it easier for pay TV services to import an out-of-market signal when there is an impasse in carriage negotiations.

Barry Faber, Sinclair’s executive vice president and general counsel, said the company would respond to Dish’s complaint “in due course.”

During the company’s second quarter conference call earlier this month, the company said it had recently signed multi-year retransmission consent deals with Cox and Suddenlink covering 4 million subscribers.

“We still have 75% of our subscriber base up for renewal over the next 12 months, providing us the opportunity to reset the fees we receive under all of these deals.” David Amy, executive vice president and chief operating, said during the call.

Ahead of the just-arrived storm over retransmission consent, the National Association of Broadcasters warned the FCC that pay TV providers would “manufacture” a crisis to get what they want from regulators.