A group of Alaska broadcasters fired the latest salvo in a battle over the future of the state’s airwaves Friday, replying to cable provider General Communication Inc.’s defense before the Federal Communications Commission of its plans to purchase three Alaska TV stations.
In the reply, attorneys reinforce the claims they made earlier this month in an FCC filing against GCI’s plans to buy Anchorage CBS affiliate KTVA-TV, as well as NBC affiliates KATH-TV in Juneau and KSCT-TV in Sitka. Four broadcasters oppose the move:
- KTUU-TV owner Northern Lights Media, Inc.
- Vision Alaska LLC, owner of ABC affiliates KYUR-TV in Anchorage, KATN-TV in Fairbanks and KJUD-TV in Juneau
- Ketchikan TV LLC, owner of Southeast Alaska CBS affiliates KXLJ-TV in Juneau, KUBD-TV in Ketchikan and KTNL-TV in Sitka
- Coastal Television Broadcasting LLC, owner of Anchorage Fox affiliate KTBY-TV
Much of the broadcasters’ reply notes that GCI’s response doesn’t address allegations they had previously raised, including a statement from Coastal Television CEO Bill Fielder that William Behnke, a corporate officer at GCI, told him the purchases would allow GCI to “dominate the news market in Alaska.” The reply points to cable provider Comcast’s 2009 acquisition of a stake in NBCUniversal -- an analogy GCI has sought to discredit -- as a precedent for regulation of GCI’s conduct.
“GCI does not dispute these facts, but instead argues that it is entitled to bias news reports as it wishes,” attorneys wrote. “The Commission, however, does not agree. In the Comcast-NBCU merger, although no party suggested that Comcast would affect the independence of NBC News, the Commission required Comcast to accept a condition maintaining the independence of NBC News.”
Broadcasters also take aim at GCI in the reply for saying that Comcast and NBCUniversal voluntarily agreed to restrictions in their deal, rather than having them imposed as safeguards by the FCC.
“GCI dismisses the conditions imposed on Comcast and NBCU as voluntary; to the contrary, the Commission explicitly approved each condition as essential to its public interest decision and, in several instances, went beyond the scope of the conditions submitted by the parties,” attorneys wrote. “The fact that GCI opposes any conditions raises more, not less, concerns about its future conduct.”
According to the broadcasters, GCI’s promises that it will double KTVA’s staff and newsroom budget, as well as expanding coverage on a variety of fronts, are a smoke screen meant to distract from its refusal to offer formal safeguards to govern its behavior.
“GCI seeks to avoid other concerns with anodyne assurances that it will improve the service provided by the stations it wants to acquire and that it will comply with the Commission’s rules,” attorneys wrote. “Since GCI offers no enforceable conditions, these assurances are no more than empty promises which GCI can later ignore at will.”
Another avenue of opposition to the purchases raised in the reply involves GCI’s alleged plans to reduce over-the-air service by abandoning the tower site used by KTVA.
“GCI does not deny those statements but now claims it will consider what the ‘best course’ will be, not disclosing whether it will be the best course for viewers or for GCI’s efforts to increase subscriptions to its cable systems,” attorneys wrote. “Whether GCI has plans to reduce over-the-air service is both in dispute and material to these applications; the Commission cannot grant the applications without a hearing or other investigation concerning GCI’s intentions.”
The broadcasters’ reply dismisses GCI’s previous claim that its planned purchases are a small transaction on a monetary basis, instead focusing on its ramifications. For comparison, it applies the company’s market-share figures -- serving 90 percent of Alaska’s TV market, providing 70 percent of its broadband connections and offering sole broadband service to much of the state -- to a hypothetical firm in New York.
“If that company then sought to purchase WCBS-TV, and stated that its goal in buying the station was to enhance its cable and broadband businesses and to disadvantage other broadcasters in New York (as GCI officials have stated here), would there be any doubt that the Commission would have serious concerns about the potential consequences to televisions service across New York State?” attorneys wrote.
On the defensive side of the document, the reply takes on a GCI claim that Coastal Television is planning to move its news production facilities out of the state. As evidence, it cites an affidavit from Fielder on discussions between him and Coastal’s chief operating officer, Scott Centers, with GCI officials.
“No such plans were ever discussed with (GCI) or any other person by Scott Centers or myself,” Fielder said. “In fact, there are no facilities in the lower 48 for us to transfer local news production. All of Coastal’s assets and operations are located in Alaska.”
The reply’s argument ends with a flat denial of GCI’s allegations that the state’s media market is poorly served by existing stations beyond Channel 2, calling them “irrelevant” to the issues raised by the broadcasters.
“GCI’s plans, ability and incentive to use the stations it seeks to acquire to harm viewers and disadvantage competitors in Alaska could not be rescued even if its claims about other stations were true,” attorneys wrote. “The fact that they are not is simply another reason for the Commission to disregard GCI’s efforts to claim that it will serve the public in Alaska.”
In an email statement on the broadcasters’ reply Friday evening, GCI spokesperson David Morris says there is “nothing new” in it.
“The fact is, GCI is seeking to acquire three TV stations in non-overlapping markets,” Morris wrote. “This transaction complies with FCC rules, serves the public interest and should be granted in the normal course. The Petitioners have provided no basis to do otherwise.”
Morris countered broadcasters’ allegations that GCI might seek to reduce over-the-air service, but didn’t mention its planned scope.
“Over the air broadcast will still be available. GCI's intent is to invest in entertainment and news dissemination,” Morris wrote. “We believe Outside owners of those stations are simply scared of an Alaska-based company that will put their money where their words are.”
While the war of words before the FCC continues, both sides are raising the stakes on the ground in Anchorage, with Channel 2 working since August on plans unveiled this week to raise a new 40,000-square-foot building in Midtown by spring 2014. GCI’s latest FCC filing since its announcement of the November purchases mentions a $17 million commitment to construct what it calls the state’s first high-definition news studio.
There is no indication, at this time, when the FCC will respond or a make decision.
Contact Chris Klint