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What’s the Cost of Not Having a Retrans Agreement? $2.25 Million

We now know what the per-subscriber fee for cable systems lacking retransmission agreements with local broadcast stations is, and it isn’t “free”.

Section 76.64 of the FCC’s Rules requires cable systems to have a written retransmission agreement in place before retransmitting the signal of a station that elected retransmission consent status. Because the law is clear on this point (for a differing view, see Aereo), there have been few cases where the FCC has had to address complaints of illegal retransmission.

In the first of these cases, the FCC found the cable system violated its obligation to negotiate in good faith with the broadcaster and ordered retransmission to cease until an agreement was in place. Two later cases for a pair of 34-day violations against one cable system operator resulted in base fine calculations of $255,000 each, but the FCC reduced the fines to $15,000 each based upon the cable system operator’s inability to pay.

Today, the FCC upped the ante, proposing a fine of $2.25 million for TV Max, Inc. and related parties for retransmitting six local TV stations to 245 multiple dwelling unit buildings in Houston without a retransmission agreement. Despite having previously had retransmission agreements with all of the stations, the cable system operator claimed it now qualified for an exemption from the retransmission agreement requirement because it had installed a master antenna on each of the buildings, allowing residents to obtain the broadcast signals for free over-the-air. Each of the six stations filed a complaint with the FCC, noting that the respective retransmission agreements with the cable system operator had expired or been terminated for non-payment, but that retransmission was continuing.

On December 20, 2012, following an investigation, the FCC’s Media Bureau issued a letter to TV Max stating its “initial finding that TV Max had willfully and repeatedly violated, and continued to violate, the Commission’s retransmission consent rules, and stating that it planned to recommend that the Commission issue a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture for these violations.” The Media Bureau later followed up with a March 28, 2013 letter to all of the parties asking for the status of carriage and whether retransmission agreements were now in place. While the stations all responded that they were still being carried without their consent, TV Max indicated it had not retransmitted the stations over its fiber since June 7, 2012.

That led to today’s Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and Order. In its decision, the FCC found that some of the cable system operator’s statements to the FCC were “lacking in candor”. Specifically, the FCC concluded that the cable system had continued to retransmit the stations over its fiber and had not installed master antennas on all of its buildings by the time it claimed to have ceased fiber retransmission:

Based upon the evidence before us, and in view of the applicable law and Commission precedent, we conclude that TV Max has willfully and repeatedly violated Section 325 of the Act and Section 76.64 of the Commission’s rules, and persists in its violation of these provisions, by retransmitting the Stations’ signals without the express authority of the originating stations. As discussed below, the violations are based on (1) TV Max’s admitted carriage of the Stations from the time their retransmission consent agreements expired through at least July 25, 2012 without the Stations’ consent and without a master antenna television (MATV) system in place in all the buildings it serves; and (2) TV Max’s ongoing carriage of the Stations without their consent since July 26, 2012 because it was not exclusively using its MATV facilities to retransmit the broadcast signals to its subscribers.

While the precise length of time any particular station was carried without a retransmission agreement varied, the FCC noted in its decision that Section 503 of the Communications Act limits its ability to issue fines for cable violations occurring more than one year ago. As a result, the FCC based its proposed fine on 365 days worth of violations involving six stations. While the decision is a bit fuzzy on the precise math behind the final number (particularly given that the maximum fine is much higher than the fine proposed), a little reverse engineering provides some real-world context for a $2.25 million fine.

The FCC notes that the system has about 10,000 subscribers, that six stations were carried without a retransmission agreement, and that the fine reflected one year’s worth of violations. That works out to a monthly retransmission “fee” of $3.13 per subscriber for each station (apparently the federal government has less negotiating leverage than ESPN). Still, that is more than the cable system operator would have paid under an arms-length negotiated broadcast retransmission agreement. Unfortunately for the affected stations, however, payment of the fine goes to the U.S. Government rather than to the television stations.

On the other hand, retransmitting programs without consent is also a copyright violation, meaning that stations pursuing copyright claims against the cable system operator could add significantly to the operator’s financial pain. Such are the risks of reinterpreting the breadth of the Communications Act’s retransmission consent requirements (see Aereo?).