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Preparing for Retrans Negotiations: Closing the Network Nonduplication Gap

For many television stations, network non-duplication and syndicated exclusivity protection are a distant memory. With the ever-increasing number of non-broadcast programming services available to cable operators, the number of distant station signals imported by cable and satellite into local markets has fallen dramatically. As a result, many local television stations are no longer vigilant in sending out network non-duplication or syndicated exclusivity notices. Recent developments arising in retransmission consent negotiations, however, make clear that television stations need to be more diligent than ever in making sure that they send out timely notices, and that the notices conform to all FCC requirements.

Recently, Smith Media (Smith) was unable to reach agreement with Time Warner Cable (TWC) regarding retransmission consent for the signals of several network-affiliated stations owned by Smith, so TWC dropped a number of Smith stations from its channel line-ups. Then TWC began to import distant network-affiliated station signals into the markets where it lost access to the Smith network-affiliated stations. It appears that Smith had not kept its network non-duplication notices up to date, opening a window in which TWC could avoid the exclusivity which Smith would normally have been able to enforce through its network contracts.

TWC threatened to do the same thing during its dispute with Sinclair Broadcast Group (Sinclair). While the Sinclair dispute appears to have been settled without its stations being dropped by TWC, an impasse in negotiations would have tested its non-duplication protection rights.

As noted in a recent trade periodical, not all broadcasters have been diligent in perfecting their non-duplication rights in recent years. Television station licensees facing retransmission consent negotiations should carefully review their non-duplication protection notices to ensure that they conform to FCC requirements. The notice rules are complex, and it may be advisable to review them with your counsel.

Because non-duplication notices must be sent to multichannel video program distributors within 60 days of execution of a network affiliation agreement, it may already be too late to cure a failure to give timely notice. In such a case, the station operator should consider contacting their network to amend or enter into a new network affiliation agreement in order to obtain updated network affiliation rights, thereby triggering a new 60-day notice period.

The Smith and Sinclair disputes raise two other important issues for television broadcasters. First, it appears that the reason that TWC could import distant network signals into Smith’s markets is that the standard TWC retransmission consent agreement permits the carriage of the station being retransmitted by any TWC system anywhere, not just within the station’s home market. It is advisable that all stations review the content of their retransmission consent agreements carefully, and, at least in the future, be sure to limit carriage rights to their own market, and perhaps to areas in which they are significantly viewed or have historically been carried.

Second, the other issue which came to light is that TWC has entered into an agreement with the FOX Network which allows TWC to carry a direct feed of FOX Network programming for a period of up to one year when a local FOX affiliate refuses to grant TWC consent to retransmit its signal. This could substantially reduce the local broadcaster’s leverage in retransmission consent negotiations, and is certain to be a major topic of discussion between network affiliate organizations and their networks.