Leaders of a Senate committee that oversees the Federal Communications Commission urged the agency to resolve an impasse that has left 2 million cable viewers in the South and Midwest without major networks.
The FCC's intercession was sought in a letter from Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the Hawaii Democrat who chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Sen. Ted Stevens, of Alaska, the panel's Republican vice chair- man.
The action comes more than three weeks after Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. of Hunt Valley blocked programming from its 22 TV stations from being aired on cable systems in 13 states.
Cable operator Mediacom Communications Corp. couldn't agree on a price to carry Sinclair's local broadcast stations that are affiliated with Fox, ABC and CBS.
Without a resolution soon, thousands of viewers of KGAN, a CBS affiliate in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, Iowa, will not be able to watch the Super Bowl Sunday on the Mediacom cable system.
The dispute between Sinclair and Mediacom is the latest in a growing industrywide battle over so-called retransmission consent fees that cable operators pay for a local station's broadcast signals.
Mediacom, of Middletown, N.Y., has accused Sinclair of holding out for high fees that are discriminatory to its cable customers, which Sinclair denies.
The battle could hit Maryland residents soon.
Sinclair also is negotiating with Comcast Corp., the state's top cable provider over similar fees. If the two sides don't reach an agreement by Monday, subscribers of high definition signals in the Baltimore area could lose access to the Fox and CW networks on Comcast cable systems.
Comcast subscribers of regular channels could lose access to those networks in March.
The issue involving Sinclair and Mediacom pushed Inouye and Stevens to write FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin in a letter Tuesday that was released yesterday.
"At a minimum, Americans should not be shut off from broadcast programming while the matter is being negotiated among the parties," Inouye and Stevens said.
While Mediacom, members of Iowa's congressional delegation and several Iowa state lawmakers also have called for binding arbitration to resolve the financial dispute, Sinclair has been steadfast in rejecting the option.
Sinclair reiterated its stance yesterday in a letter to the senators.
"While I can appreciate your desire to make sure that the public is not inconvenienced by this situation, I hope you can understand the danger of suggesting the government should order private parties to enter into an agreement when they are not able to reach agreement on their own," wrote Barry M. Faber, Sinclair's vice president and general counsel.
The senators said they plan to discuss the dispute at an oversight hearing today. FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin said the FCC chairman is looking forward to answering questions from the committee.
Mediacom has complained to the FCC that Sinclair did not negotiate in good faith, an allegation the agency's media bureau rejected. Mediacom has filed an appeal.
Nonetheless, FCC media bureau encouraged the two parties to enter arbitration while noting the agency lacks the authority to require them to do so.
Mediacom executives urged the FCC yesterday to direct Sinclair to allow the cable operator to carry the broadcaster's signals pending a resolution.
The two senators are "taking a position of what the FCC should have done, and Sinclair is saying, 'stay out of it,' " said Mediacom Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rocco B. Commisso, who called on Congress to investigate the matter.
To appease customers, Mediacom has handed out thousands of antenna kits. Mediacom plans to give away 10,000 frozen pizzas Saturday, the eve of the Super Bowl, said Tom Larsen, the company's vice president of legal affairs.
In the meantime, Sinclair struck a deal this month with Time Warner Cable, allowing the nation's second-largest cable operator, to carry analog and digital signals of 35 stations in 22 markets including Buffalo, N.Y. and part of Ohio. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.