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Alaska TV wars: GCI fires back at KTUU, other competitors

Jill Burke
Earlier this month, nearly a dozen TV stations in Alaska, led by Anchorage-based KTUU, asked the FCC to stop GCI from taking over CBS affiliate KTVA in Anchorage, and NBC affiliates KSCT in Sitka and KATH in Juneau. Loren Holmes illustration

Alaska telecom giant General Communication Inc. defended itself last week over its proposed purchase of three TV stations across the state, telling federal regulators other TV media are simply trying to protect their turf.

“This small transaction will create large benefits for Alaska, which suffers from a stunning lack of broadcast competition, local news diversity, and technological innovation,” GCI wrote in its opening arguments to the Federal Communications Commission. “The public-interest benefits of GCI’s proposed ownership of KTVA, KATH, and KSCT are simply inescapable.”

Earlier this month, nearly a dozen Alaska television stations, led by Anchorage-based KTUU, asked the FCC to stop GCI from taking over CBS affiliate KTVA in Anchorage, and NBC affiliates KSCT in Sitka and KATH in Juneau. The sale of television stations to GCI would effectively create a monopolistic choke-hold on the flow of information and competition, and would ultimately be a disservice to viewers statewide, according to the complainants. They sought relief by filing a petition with the FCC to block or restrict GCI from buying the stations.

Both sides, which equally claim to embrace competition in Alaska's TV news industry, accuse the other of being disingenuous. Rather than being ready and willing to take on robust competitors, the two sides allege each is out to do whatever it can to sabotage a fair playing field, with the viewers -- news and entertainment consumers -- caught in the crossfire.

GCI's theory about all the naysaying and legal wrangling boils down to two sentences in its response:

GCI’s history in Alaska suggests that it has the wherewithal to disrupt the incumbent Petitioners’ tidy regional dominance in which they provide minimal or nonexistent local programming, but still collect significant advertising revenues because of a lack of competition. ...If the Commission should have any anti-competitive concerns regarding Alaska broadcasting, those concerns should focus on the efforts of the Petitioners to impede the advent of badly needed new competition.

Guided by this premise, GCI sets out in its filing to debunk the opposing petitioners' arguments and attempts to make the case for the FCC to swiftly grant GCI's request to purchase the TV stations.

Calling the attacks on its motivations “utter nonsense,” “frivolous” and littered with “doomsday-scenario” rhetoric, GCI points to its 30-year history in Alaska, one it characterizes as constantly pushing into new markets and prompting existing service providers to increase benefits and lower prices. GCI also says it's sunk $1 billion into Alaska building its company and investing in new technologies.

More importantly to questions the FCC must evaluate, GCI claims some of the negative fears KTUU and the other stations have stoked are overblown. Allegations that competing stations will be priced out of GCI's cable network or relegated to unfavorable channel positions grind against current FCC regulations, existing contracts and run counter to GCI's own economic interests, according to the telecom company.

Common ownership of cable and television stations is allowed by the FCC, GCI notes. Those against GCI entering the TV news business have drawn comparisons to recent Comcast/NBC-Universal buyout. GCI says such comparisons are off base. The Comcast merger involved much higher stakes, GCI argues, with more stations, national-level broadcast holdings and overlapping service areas. In Alaska, GCI argues, it is acquiring only three stations in non-overlapping regions.

In its response to KTUU and others, GCI also takes issues with suggestions that it will have a conservative, business-minded slant, or peddle a biased news product representing a slanted view. GCI denies that is its intent, but argues that, regardless of intent, “political beliefs and editorial position are not a barrier to entry.”

Read GCI's full response to the FCC

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com