The chief executive officers of two feuding media companies were at the statehouse today, answering questions about the battle that has taken two Iowa TV. stations off local cable systems. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns the CBS station in Cedar Rapids and the FOX station in Des Moines, has failed to agree to contract terms over the “retransmission” of those signals over Mediacom cable systems.
Barry Faber is Sinclair’s general counsel. “While I note that Mediacom likes to paint this as Sinclair having taken their stations away, the reality of the situation is no different than anybody in this room walking into a store, seeing a sweater that they like, picking it up and seeing a price tag that is higher than they want to pay for that sweater, putting it down and walking out of the store,” Faber testified before the Legislature’s Oversight Committee.
Rocco Commisso, Mediacom’s owner, disputed that comparison. “When you go into a store and try to buy the sweater — if you don’t like that sweater, you don’t like that price — at least you can go into the next store and buy something similar,” Commisso said, as he pounded the table. “What he hasn’t told you is he has a monopoly on that product. What he hasn’t told you is that we cannot import by law that…FOX signal into Des Moines.”
Senator Tom Courtney, a Democrat from Burlington, says today’s give-and-take between the two companies was like watching a verbal fist-fight. “This is so important to about a quarter of a million Iowans. Let’s go to work and work this out,” Courtney says. “…I know that one side wants more than the other side wants to give but, darn it, it seems like they ought to be able to sit down and work this thing out.” Courtney suggested that the companies enter binding arbitration with the FCC to resolve the dispute and he found their responses “arrogant.”
“Everybody involved here has a lot of money,” Courtney says. “I sometimes get the feeling maybe little Iowans don’t mean that much to ’em.” Senator Mary Lundby, a Republican from Marion, told Sinclair’s top lawyer that her mother couldn’t watch her favorite shows now because rabbit ears don’t pull in the signal to her mother’s home in Carroll.
“I was just amazed at their total disregard for their customer and Iowans in general,” Lundby says. “They just kind of implied we were so stupid we couldn’t understand about Direct TV and we were just so stupid we could understand about rabbit ears…I thought he was very condescending to Iowans.”
Sinclair’s attorney told Lundby and the other legislators that Iowans who want to watch the two stations , and cannot now because of the dispute, should subscribe to Direct TV or the Dish Network. Under a 2002 contract, Mediacom was paying Sinclair nothing to rebroadcast the two TV stations on their cable systems in Iowa, but Sinclair’s attorney says his company put Mediacom on notice then they wanted to be compensated. The dispute over how much Mediacom should pay has been ongoing ever since.