In an action that the FCC described as “the first of its kind to enforce the Commission’s long-standing retransmission consent rules,” the FCC announced the signing of a consent decree last Friday in which Sinclair Broadcast Group agreed to pay nearly $9.5 million to settle allegations that Sinclair had violated agency rules requiring broadcasters to negotiate retransmission consent terms with multichannel video program distributors (MPVDs) in “good faith.” As of June 2015, Baltimore-based Sinclair ranked as the third-largest television broadcaster in the nation with ownership of 128 stations in 78 markets, covering 36.6% of the U.S. population.
Specifically, the probe examined Sinclair’s compliance with rules, adopted by the FCC in February 2015, that prohibit local broadcasters from coordinating retransmission consent negotiations “or negotiating on a joint basis with another television broadcast station in the same local market” unless the stations in question are under common control. That rule corresponds with provisions of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Reauthorization Act of 2014 in which Congress decreed that such joint negotiations constitute a breach of a broadcaster’s good faith obligation. As stated in an FCC news release, investigators with the agency’s Mass Media Bureau concluded that, during a seven-month period last year, Sinclair had “negotiated retransmission consent on behalf of dozens of stations that it did not control at the same time that it was negotiating for its own stations in the same markets.” Media Bureau officials further stated that the alleged rule breaches involved 36 non-Sinclair stations and half-dozen MVPDs.
Under the consent decree, which includes no finding of wrongdoing, Sinclair has agreed to submit a voluntary payment of $9,495,000 to the FCC and to waive its right to appeal. The FCC, in turn, has agreed to grant all pending license renewal requests filed by Sinclair. Affirming, “the Commission will not hesitate to take enforcement action where broadcasters or pay TV providers violate their good faith obligations,” FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake proclaimed that the FCC’s action “demonstrates our strong commitment to vigilantly enforce our retransmission consent rules.” Stressing that the FCC “did not find Sinclair to be at fault in connection with any of the matters addressed in the consent decree,” a Sinclair spokesman noted that the consent decree “and the dismissals of other pending matters . . . allow Sinclair to focus on the future.”