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Alaska Broadcasters Petition to Block GCI TV Station Purchases

March 01, 2013|By Chris Klint | Channel 2 News

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Several Alaska broadcasters issued a challenge to cable provider General Communication Inc.’s plans for expansion Friday, filing a petition with the Federal Communications Commission to block the company’s purchase of three television stations in Anchorage, Juneau and Sitka.

Broadcasters that filed against GCI subsidiary Denali Media Holdings’ November acquisition of Anchorage CBS affiliate KTVA-TV, as well as Southeast Alaska NBC affiliates KATH-TV in Juneau and KSCT-TV in Sitka, include:

  • KTUU-TV owner Northern Lights Media, Inc.
  • Vision Alaska LLC, owner of ABC affiliates KYUR-TV in Anchorage, KATN-TV in Fairbanks and KJUD-TV in Juneau
  • Ketchikan TV LLC, owner of Southeast Alaska CBS affiliates KXLJ-TV in Juneau, KUBD-TV in Ketchikan and KTNL-TV in Sitka
  • Coastal Television Broadcasting LLC, owner of Anchorage Fox affiliate KTBY-TV

The companies’ FCC filing cites GCI’s already massive reach in Alaska, emphasizing its status as a dominant media player throughout the state. Attorneys also mention GCI's digital TERRA system, which may take over from the analog Alaska Rural Communications Service upon an FCC-mandated 2015 transition to digital systems if ARCS doesn't replace analog converters with digital versions.

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“GCI cable systems pass 90 percent of all Alaska television households, more than half of which subscribe to its service,” attorneys wrote. “GCI also provides more than 70 percent of all Alaska consumer broadband connections. Its federally financed TERRA system will be the only broadband service available to much of rural Alaska, and possibly will be the only effective way for rural communities to obtain any video service.”

The petition asks the FCC to either deny GCI’s request for approval of the purchase outright, or impose conditions to prevent it from accumulating too much power in the state’s media markets. It claims that GCI officials have told other TV stations and potential employees about the true intent of its plans, which attorneys describe as “contrary to the public interest.”

“The president of GCI’s proposed licensees explained that GCI intends to make its news product dominant in the State and that GCI’s news content will be biased toward GCI’s corporate interests,” attorneys wrote. “GCI indicated that it would seek to reduce distribution of competing stations, particularly carriage of news programming in other parts of Alaska, and to provide disadvantageous channel positioning and other carriage positioning for its broadcast competitors.”

Broadcasters also pointed out GCI’s decision to retain former Channel 2 news director John Tracy, now a partner in advertising firm Bradley Reid and Associates, as an advisor to the newly acquired stations -- implying that his involvement constituted a conflict of interest.

“In fact, GCI has retained as a consultant to supervise its news operations the co-owner of Alaska’s largest public relations and political advertising firm, who apparently plans to continue in that role while he determines the content of GCI’s news programs,” attorneys wrote.

The petition claims that GCI told a potential employee that it planned to abandon an Anchorage tower used by KTVA-TV in favor of a Downtown transmission site, a move that would leave parts of town not served by a CBS broadcast signal and drive people to GCI’s cable services. The petition says “similar concerns” have emerged about GCI’s plans for Juneau service.

Asked for comment on Friday’s filing, GCI spokesperson David Morris said the company’s expansion would provide tangible benefits to viewers statewide.

“GCI’s entry into the broadcast market will increase competition and result in more high-quality local news and local programming for underserved audiences in Alaska,” Morris wrote in an email. “We look forward to the opportunity for these stations to provide high quality viewing opportunities for Alaskans.”

KYUR-TV news director Lori Tipton warned Friday, however, of the possible damage an expanded GCI could do to the Alaska market.

“The combination of GCI’s existing businesses with the television stations GCI wants to acquire will give it the ability and incentive to harm competition in the television market and to reduce service to the public,” Tipton wrote.

In a statement on the filing, KTUU-TV general manager Andy MacLeod says that while the station is prepared to compete with GCI, it wants to ensure that it does so on equal terms.

“We welcome competition in news,” MacLeod wrote. “More voices and choices are best for the consumer, and we seek to ensure that the entry of GCI into the TV and news business is on a level playing field where distribution cannot trump content and disadvantage non-GCI owned content providers.”

MacLeod likened the protections sought by broadcasters if the purchase goes forward to those the FCC imposed on cable provider Comcast, when it purchased a stake in NBCUniversal in 2009 before buying out General Electric’s remaining share earlier this month. KTUU is an NBC affiliate.

“GCI is more powerful in Alaska than Comcast is in the Lower 48 on a per capita basis as it has a virtual monopoly on cable TV and broadband, especially in rural Alaska, and it also is a powerful player in wireless,” MacLeod wrote. “The very same safe guards the FCC provided in the Comcast/NBC merger are what we the other Alaska broadcasters are seeking. GCI rejected them, and that prompted today's filing.”

Contact Chris Klint

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