LOS ANGELES — In a significant about-face that could, at least for now, resolve a bitter three-year dispute with Comcast Corp., Burbank-based Liberman Broadcasting has elected for must-carry status for its three Estrella TV stations in the Houston, Denver, and Salt Lake City DMAs. The move means the Spanish-language broadcast network will be back on Comcast systems in the three markets come Jan. 1 after three difficult years for the broadcast media company.
Liberman, also known as LBI Media, made the election official on Sept. 27, by way of letters sent via certified mail to Comcast’s Philadelphia headquarters and the MVPD’s offices across the Houston, Denver and Salt Lake City markets. The letters were uploaded to the online FCC Public Inspection File on Oct. 2.
The decision by LBI Media means that, come Jan. 1, 2018, KETD-53 in Denver, KPNZ-24 in Salt Lake City and KZJL-61 in Houston will reappear on Comcast systems.
The must-carry selection will keep the stations on Comcast lineups in the three markets through New Year’s Eve 2020.
In its letter regarding KETD, LBI Media SVP/Content Distribution and Affiliate Sales Cathy Lewis requested that the station return to cable channel 45 — where Estrella TV could be found until the end of 2014, when it was dropped from Comcast.
“We will be pleased to cooperate with you to help provide the best possible service for your subscribers,” Lewis said.
However, there’s still likely to be bad blood between LBI Media and Comcast, and Lewis’ following sentence address this square on. She added, “We note that the must-carry election contained in this letter does not alter our rights with regard to our pending complaint against Comcast before the FCC that Comcast violated the FCC’s program carriage rules and the conditions of the Comcast-NBCU Order.”
The complaint is in regard to so-called “white areas” — defined as markets where there is neither an Estrella TV O&O nor an affiliate.
The rocky relationship between LBI Media and Comcast dates to three years ago, when LBI gambled by foregoing must carry status in the three DMAs by making its first-ever decision to seek retransmission consent.
LBI says it opted for retransmission consent, rather than must-carry, with respect to all of its Estrella TV stations for the three-year cycle beginning January 1, 2015 because of what it perceived to be the stations’ strong ratings.
In September 2014, a LBI consultant approached Comcast to negotiate a retransmission consent agreement for the Estrella TV stations. This resulted in a plan that saw LBI seeking carriage and compensation comparable to what Comcast afforded to Telemundo—a much bigger network by ratings that just happens to be owned by Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit.
In particular, LBI sought from Comcast “carriage and compensation for all Estrella TV O&Os, carriage in markets where non-owned Estrella TV broadcast affiliates not otherwise carried by Comcast operate, and carriage and compensation in ‘white areas.’”
This would have benefited LBI in such big DMAs as Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco.
Negotiations continued until February 2015, with Comcast unwilling to expand its carriage of Estrella TV programming or to compensate Liberman for that carriage.
On February 19, 2015, Estrella TV’s Houston, Denver and Salt Lake City were dropped from Comcast’s respective channel lineups in those markets, as there was no longer a must-carry rule in effect for the stations. Comcast argued that the stations were not generating substantial viewing audiences.
LBI responded by claiming Comcast discriminated against Estrella TV, showing favoritism for its own Spanish-language TV networks — Telemundo and digital multicast offering TelExitos.
In August 2016, the Tom Wheeler-led FCC sided with Comcast, and shot down a contention from LBI that the Commission’s program carriage rules can be considered in its ongoing battle with Comcast over retransmission fees.
That order specifically dealt with KETD-53, KPNZ-24 and KZJL-61; the FCC noted that Liberman “failed to put forth sufficient evidence of its program carriage claims to establish a prima facie case.”
LBI is appealing this decision. Because of the “white areas” where Estrella TV is distributed, it says it is a “video programming vendor.” This point is made in its Sept. 26, 2016 Petition for Reconsideration with the Commission, for which Estrella TV created an entire advocacy website stating its case: www.estrellafccfiling.com. The Media Bureau disagrees with LBI’s contention it is such a vendor.
A LBI representative declined RBR+TVBR‘s request for comment, and instead provided LBI’s Oct. 11 response to the Comcast letter filed with the FCC.
MUST-CARRY ELECTION EXTENDS BEYOND COMCAST
Comcast is the not the only company to receive must-carry letters.
For KETD alone, LBI mailed correspondence to Baja Broadband/TDS Telecom; BWTelecom; Copper Mountain Consolidated Metropolitan District; Dalton Telephone Co.; Eagle Communications; Great Plains Communications; Great Plains Cable TV Inc.; K2 Communications; Kentec Communications; Lyons Communications; Mile Hi Cable Partners; Mobius Communications; Mountain Village Cable; PC Telecom; Rebeltec Communications; USA Communications; Vyve Broadband LLC; WinDBreak Cable; Town of Center Municipal System; Craig & Mediatrica Greager; Vista Access Cable; Vidion Inc.; Allo Communications Inc.; Consolidated Connect; Kaycee Cable Television; Charter Communications’ Spectrum of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, of Alamosa, Craig, Grand Junction, and Montrose, Colo., and Casper and Cheyenne, Wyo.
For KZJL, must-carry letters also went to such operators as Cable One, Coastal Link Communications, En-Touch Systems, NewWave Communications, Phonoscope Ltd., ZochNet, Multiline Cable Co., Skitter Cable Co., WNW Communications, Ultra Communications Group, Daybreak Communications, TVMax Houston, ETS Cablevision, Clearworks Communications, Advanta Technologies, Cameron Communications, Industry I-Net, Koch Cable TV, Suddenlink Communications, Charter Spectrum, and Altice USA, which operates Optimum.
In the case of Ogden, Utah-licensed KPNZ, must-carry letters from Liberman’s Cathy Lewis were sent to Baja Broadband/TDS Telecom; CentraCom; Emery Telecom; Satview Broadcast; South Central Communications; Spanish Fork Community Network; Strata Networks; Sweetwater Cable TV Co.; Union Cable Co.; Uinta Basic Electronic Telecommunications; Real Choice TV; Filer Mutual Telephone Company; and Utah State University.
This illustrates the impact that a must-carry election has on an MVPD of all shapes and sizes.