Senator wants hearing on TV blackout disputes

The recent contract dispute between WSYR-TV in Syracuse and Verizon Fios, could result in hearings before the State Senate.

Senator Patty Ritchie has sent a letter to the Senator George Maziarz, Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Telecommunications to hold hearings on what Ritchie calls "a disturbing recent trend of carriage disputes that are leaving consumers without access to programming..."

Ritchie is referring to the dispute between WSYR-TV and Verizon Fios which resulted in the temporary removal of the ABC affiliate from the Fios cable network in Central New York. The removal began on Friday and ended Sunday evening after the two sides reached agreement over how much Fios would pay WSYR's owner, Newport Television, to carry its programming.

Reached by phone, Newport executive Michael DiPasquale told CNY Central's Jim Kenyon that he could not talk about Ritchie's request for a public hearing, "It's the first I've heard of that." DiPasquale also refused to discuss details of the settlement with Fios except to say, "We got a deal done, and I'm glad about that." A spokesperson for Verizon Fios has not yet returned our call.

In a news release, Senator Ritchie said because of the disputes, "consumers are being denied services they are paying for." Besides the Syracuse dispute, the State Senator pointed to the dispute between Time Warner Cable and MSG network that "left millions of viewers without access to Rangers, Sabres and Knicks basketball games since New Year's Day; the dispute between Cablevision and Fox Sports that blocked out the opening of last year's World Series; and Dish Network's decision in 2010 to pull New York Mets games.

"In each case viewers and customers were given little or no advance notice of the program changes," even as they continued to pay for services, Senator Ritchie said in her new release. She added that each of these "cases involve contract disputes among private companies, but it's undeniable that it's consumers who are ultimately paying the price, both in fees for services they can't access and in the deep disappointment they experience by missing favorite events and programs."

In her letter to Senator Maziarz, Ritchie wrote, "I am writing to you to urgently request that the Energy and Telecommunications Committee, ...Convene a hearing to investigate these matters to determine if our current laws, investigatory and oversight powers are sufficient to protect consumers who are impacted by these decisions."

Read Verizon's statement on the involvement of Congress (.pdf)

Read Senator Ritchie's letter to Senator Maziarz (.pdf)

Read Senator Richie's letter

What do you think? Should the state investigate these disputes involving cable and satellite services, or is government overstepping its bounds?