Comcast Corporation filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) against Nexstar Media Group this week, fanning the flames of a years-long dispute between the two companies over broadcast station ownership and carriage of some signals on Comcast’s legacy television service.
In the complaint filed with the FCC on Monday, Comcast accused Nexstar of not negotiating in good faith over carriage terms for WPIX-TV (Channel 11), a New York City station that Nexstar operates under a local marketing agreement with Mission Broadcasting.
Comcast was forced to drop WPIX on December 3 after its carriage agreement for the station lapsed. The issue didn’t impact cable subscribers in New York City itself, because cable service is provided by Charter’s Spectrum TV, but it did affect Comcast subscribers in other parts of New York state as well as neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut.
Issues between Comcast and Nexstar date back to mid-2021, when Comcast filed an informal complaint with the FCC accusing Nexstar of violating ownership rules for its operation of WPIX. The station was once owned by Tribune Media, which Nexstar acquired several years ago; to satisfy regulatory concerns about ownership, Nexstar divested WPIX and several other stations to competing broadcasters, but the station became under Nexstar’s control shortly afterward when its new owner, Mission Broadcasting, agreed to a local marketing agreement with the company.
Those agreements are not unusual in the broadcast space, but a key provision of the pact caught Comcast’s attention: As part of the partnership, Mission allowed Nexstar to negotiation retransmission consent agreements with cable and satellite companies. Those agreement spell out the fees companies like Comcast must pay to companies like Mission and Nexstar for carriage of channels like WPIX.
Last year, Comcast argued to the FCC that the arrangement made Nexstar a de facto owner of WPIX, in violation of the FCC’s ownership cap, which is intended to keep any single broadcaster from dominating the industry (Nexstar, as it stands now, is the largest single owner of broadcast television stations in the country). Nexstar countered with a lawsuit in federal court — a case that is still pending, with depositions scheduled for early next year — and the two sides have been at war ever since.
The battle escalated on Monday when Comcast filed a formal complaint with the FCC, arguing that Nexstar and Mission have failed to negotiate in good faith over terms to restore WPIX to Comcast’s systems in the tri-state area.
Federal regulations require pay TV companies like Comcast and programmers like Nexstar and Mission to hold good faith discussions when trying to hammer out a retransmission agreement. Comcast said Nexstar and Mission have, so far, not held up its end of that obligation.
In the complaint, Comcast accused Mission of failing to negotiate at all for continued carriage of WPIX, while Nexstar has rejected Comcast’s proposals for an extension that would have allowed the cable company to continue offering the station while both sides worked out a more-permanent deal.
According to Comcast, officials at Nexstar waited about a week after WPIX had been pulled from the cable system before addressing Comcast’s counter-proposals for a new carriage agreement. Nexstar “flatly rejected” Comcast’s proposal for a temporary extension well after the station had been pulled, the company complained.
To make matters worse, Nexstar and Mission are now “colluding” in a manner that could force over 100 other broadcast stations off Comcast’s systems in the coming weeks — a situation The Desk reported over the weekend after Nexstar and Mission stations began notifying viewers of a potential blackout on Comcast’s pay TV service.
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Comcast says the looming blackout involving more than 100 stations is an attempt by Nexstar and Mission to convince the cable operator to drop its legal challenges over Nexstar’s operation of WPIX under a shared services agreement.
“Nexstar and Mission have colluded in an attempt to force Comcast to abandon its legal challenges over the proper carriage of WPIX as a condition to any continued retransmission of more than 100 other stations,” the cable company wrote in its FCC complaint. “Defendants’ concerted attempt to use continued carriage of their more than 100 other stations as blackmail to prejudge significant alleged violations of the Commission’s rules and policies involving a single station, WPIX, is patently unreasonable and demonstrates the lack of any ‘sincere desire to reach an agreement that is acceptable to both parties.'”
The FCC has the ability to fine broadcast station owners if it agrees that they fail to negotiate a carriage agreement in good faith. The agency did just that against Deerfield Media and Sinclair Broadcast Group in 2020 after DirecTV parent company AT&T filed its own complaint with the FCC. (AT&T spun off DirecTV into a separate company last year.)
In the Deerfield case, the FCC proposed a $10 million fine after upholding AT&T’s complaint. The broadcasters appealed the fine; the FCC affirmed it in March.