The National Association of Broadcasters’ board of directors announced that it will put a four-week stop on negotiating retransmission-consent agreements around the time of the digital conversion, scheduled for Feb. 17.
The board is asking members to voluntarily commit “to make available to all of their distribution partners those broadcast signals being provided as of Feb. 4, 2009, through March 4, 2009,” two weeks after the conversion.
In practical terms, the NAB wants to make sure that any station or station group in dispute with a cable, satellite, or telco distributor over retransmission issues suspend hostile action, like refusing to permit the distributor to show the station, while the digital conversion is near or in its first weeks.
NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton said the so-called quiet period is an effort to minimize "potential confusion in the marketplace" that might already be present as viewers get used to their new digital downconverter boxes or other issues associated with the conversion.
The quiet period is essentially longer than the four weeks the NAB proposed because Nielsen next year will move the February sweeps to March, also because it wants to take precautions to make sure ratings measurements aren't unduly affected by viewer confusion over the digital conversion.
By law, stations can't be removed from a distributors system during a sweeps period, so that extends the NAB quiet period for virtually the entire month of March.
Some in the cable industry, including the American Cable Association and cable operator Mediacom Communications, asked for a longer quiet period than the one the NAB proposed Tuesday, suggesting that it begin in January 2009 and extend until May 31. The ACA said earlier that thousands of retrans agreements expire in December.
ACA president Matt Polka said in a statement that while he "welcomes" the initiative, a start date of Feb. 4 "is simply too late and will not go far enough to protect consumers whose signals could be pulled by broadcasters before Feb. 4." He reiterated the ACA's original January-May quiet period.
Although the Federal Communications Commission is not required to weigh in, Polka urged "prompt FCC action to require such a quiet period." He also said the NAB's board does not cover all broadcasters, "many of which are in markets served by the ACA," which represents smaller cable providers.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin was briefed on the quiet-period dates on a conference call Monday with NAB Joint Board chairman Jack Sander, a senior advisor to Belo, and NAB Television Board chairman K. James Yager, president and CEO of Barrington Broadcasting.