WJLA Washington files bad faith negotiation complaint with FCC


Shentel Telecommunications operates a 8,200 subscriber cable system in Shenandoah County VA, part of the Washington DC DMA, and it’s telling its subscribers that it is protecting them by refusing the demands of Allbritton for carriage of ABC WJLA Washington. But Allbritton says Shentel was bargaining in bad faith and has filed an emergency petition with the FCC to redress the situation.

In a note to subscribers, Shentel wrote it was subject to “outdated” regulations regarding retransmission, and said it was protecting its subs from big increases in demands from some stations. Well, one station – WJLA. “As your advocate, Shentel will not allow unreasonable station owners to force these dramatic rate increases that impact the overall prices to our customers. If we are unable to reach a fair compromise with station owners, Shentel will be required to remove those stations in January 2012.”

That is not exactly how WJLA sees it. It said negotiations were moving along, and in fact, it accepted a proposal put on the table by Shentel.

IN its FCC filing, Allbritton wrote, “In short, Shentel proposed retransmission consent terms and, when Allbritton accepted those terms, Shentel withdrew the offer, dropped WJLA-TV with insufficient notice, and has refused Allbritton’s further efforts to negotiate. If Shentel’s actions in this case don’t constitute bad faith negotiations, then the Act and the Commission’s rules provide no effective protection for parties seeking in good faith to negotiate retransmission consent.”

Shentel has room to operate in this case due to its carriage of WHSV-TV, an out-of-market ABC affiliate that is part of the Harrisonburg VA DMA.

“Shentel was apparently just stringing WJLA along while it was making a deal with an out-of-market ABC affiliate from Harrisonburg,” said WJLA General Manager Bill Lord.  “Shentel turned its back on its own customers, depriving them of strong local newscasts and popular syndicated programs.” 

“We were able to reach retransmission agreements with every other distributor across our seven markets,” said Allbritton Communications Company Senior Vice President Jerald Fritz.  “Shentel’s refusal to take ‘yes’ for an answer makes it the poster child for bad faith bargaining, and it constitutes an on-going, daily, per se violation of the FCC’s rules.”

One unusual aspect to this case is Allbritton’s claim that it did not pull its signal, as often happens in such disputes – and since it had agreed to what it thought were Shentel’s terms, it had no reason to pull the signal. Instead, Shentel dropped the station, and Allbritton said it did so without the required notification. Allbritton suggested to the FCC that its assessment of a $7.5K fine for this violation may well apply in the present instance.

In an article published in December in Northern Virginia Daily, online comments were posted by a few disgruntled cable subscribers in Shentel’s service area. They noted that Shentel was already raising its rates; that they were losing access to a major market news team and having it replaced by a “third-rate” small market team. One said, “Oh well, at least viewers will know if a hubcap turns up missing in Elkton or something crucial like that.” One who didn’t mind the loss of WJLA’s news (aimed at commuters and transplants) was still annoyed at higher rates without improved service. At least two were checking into satellite TV service.