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Sinclair using its Baltimore airwaves in negotiations with Verizon FiOS

Warning of disruption or loss of favorite programs a long-used bargaining tactic

By David Zurawik

The Baltimore Sun

5:52 PM EST, December 19, 2011

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Baltimore viewers haven't been able to watch an NFL football game or any popular Fox program on WBFF the last couple of weeks without seeing a repeated crawl across the bottom of the screen telling them that if they are Verizon FiOS viewer their programming on the channel might soon be disrupted.

Here's the full message as it appears on Fox 45's website:

Verizon Fios' current contract to carry this station expires on December 31, 2011, and based on the current status of negotiations we do not believe they will be carrying this station after that date. We do not think it is appropriate to negotiate matters such as this in public and as a result are not prepared to comment further on the reasons that we do not believe a new contract will be entered into.

This issue will impact only Fios subscribers and this station will continue to be available from DirecTV, DISH Network and Comcast Cable and we encourage our loyal viewers to make alternative arrangements to ensure their uninterrupted ability to watch our great programming after the end of the year.

Fios subscribers may also want to call Fios at 1-800-483-7988 or email them at potomacexecescals@one.verizon.com in order to let them know that they value this station and will consider canceling their Fios service if this station is not carried.

We apologize for any inconvenience resulting from this and will update the information provided to the public on our station's broadcast and on our website if anything changes.


What we are talking are retransmission-consent fees, the money paid by distributors for the right to carry and provide content from others to their subscribers.

Bill Fanshawe, the general manager of WBFF and WNUV, the Sinclair Brodcast Group stations in Baltimore, declined comment Monday.

Sinclair, which is based in Hunt Valley, owns WBFF and operates WNUV (Channel 54).

"Negotiations continue between Verizon and Sinclair Broadcasting, despite Sinclair’s messaging to the contrary," Heather Wilner, a spokeswoman for Verizon told the Sun Monday.

"Unfortunately, Sinclair is threatening to temporarily remove Fox and CW from Verizon’s FiOS customers because Verizon will not give in to their demands for an unreasonable rate increase," she added. "We have never threatened to remove these channels, and do not have plans to remove them from our lineup."

Wilner concluded her email to the Sun, saying: "We’re working hard on behalf of our customers to ensure they receive the best possible television service with the content they have come to expect. We hope that Sinclair will agree to rates and terms that are in our viewers’ best interests and that Sinclair will not temporarily interrupt our customers’ ability to receive content from these stations."

As a media reporter and critic, I cannot help but point out how disingenuous it is for Sinclair to say, "we do not think it is approriate to negotiate matters such as this in public," and then use the public airwaves leased to them by the FCC to essentially do that with endless warnings during football games and other popular programs.

Sinclair is not the first broadcaster to employ this tactic of using the airwaves to try and create enough worry in viewers that they will call or write to the party with whom the company is negotiating.

As to the history of Sinclair and this strategy, here's a couple of links to check courtesy of FierceCable.com.

Here's one that ran under the headline, "Sinclair, Comcast beat FCC clock, quietly sign retrans deal."

Here's another, this one under the headline "Time Warner cable, Sinclair finally reach retrans deal."

Local Ravens fans should know that NBC has the first two wildcard games and the Super Bowl. CBS, meanwhile, has all the AFC games. Fox has NFC after the wildcards.

So, even if the worst case scenario should go into effect Jan. 1, Baltimore fans would still be able to see the Ravens in the playoffs and Super Bowl on the CBS-owned local station, WJZ, and Baltimore's NBC affiliate, WBAL.