It seems pretty simple to us.
When questions arise about how government is doing business, we get to look at the paperwork and decide for ourselves.
In January, customers of Tacoma’s public cable TV company Click lost six channels from Fisher Communications, including ABC-affiliate KOMO-TV, after contract negotiations between the two broke down.
During negotiations, Click network manager Tenzin Gyaltsen accused Fisher of “squeezing a small cable company.” The Tacoma City Council signed a resolution supporting Click, noting that fees suggested by Fisher would represent a 300 percent increase since 2009.
After a full month without service, Click inked a deal with Fisher. Gyaltsen sent an email to Fisher senior vice president Randa Mikarah, saying “We believe that Fisher has an unfair advantage over Click and used its power to withhold the signals in order to control and impose unreasonable terms in this negotiation.” He said Click was entering the agreement “under protest.”
So was Click strong-armed into an unreasonable deal that would result in even higher rates for cable customers? Wanting to know more, The News Tribune asked to see Click’s “retransmission” agreements with all the Seattle broadcasters.
Government contracts are public documents. Should be no problem.
But after four months and tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs, the TNT is no closer to finding out what Click is paying to air television stations KING, KOMO, KIRO, KCPQ and others.
Yet right on script, Click came to the City Council again last week to request subscriber rate increases — the fifth since 2010 — based almost entirely on the rising retransmission fees.
After agreeing the contracts were public documents, Click notified broadcasters in February it was about to release them. That sent the broadcasters rushing into court to stop the release. The retransmission fees, broadcasters claim, are trade secrets that cannot be made public.
These are not secret recipes or patented inventions owned by the broadcasters; they are prices. Based on the amount of negotiating Fisher did with Click, there obviously isn’t one set, secret price. It’s different for different cable companies, even in the same market.
And retransmission fees aren’t all that secret.
A June 6 story on industry website TVNewsCheck says that ESPN charges $5.54 a month per subscriber and that local broadcast channels get about $1 a month per subscriber. That jibes with the refunds Click gave its customers for going a month without the Fisher channels — about $1.50 for those with the lowest level of service.
The story, which came out of a TV and radio finance summit in New York, said broadcasters plan to keep pushing for higher per-subscriber fees, possibly even higher than those charged by national cable channels, although not as high as ESPN.
“I do think we can get there,” the story quotes Robert Dunlop. Dunlop is vice president of operations for Seattle’s own Fisher Communications.
The city of Tacoma and Click over time jumped to the other side of the legal fence regarding disclosure — testifying alongside broadcasters that the fees should remain secret.
During our first court hearing in March, Click said it feared that making the fees public would drive them up. Fisher warned of the same, saying that if its fees were disclosed as the highest, other broadcasters would raise their rates to match.
In part because he didn’t want to be responsible for hurting Click, the judge said, he would keep the status quo — not release the contracts — and let a higher court make the ruling.
But a closer look at the broadcasters’ court filings reveals their real fear — that making the fees public would cause them to fall.
In CBS’ March court filing, the company describes the highly competitive field of “multichannel video programming distributors,” or MVPDs, with which it negotiates.
“If terms of CBS’ retransmission agreements were publicly available, every operator would press for the lowest license fee CBS had afforded to any other MVPD,” the company writes. “In its retransmission agreements, CBS seeks to realize rates reflecting the higher end of what it has previously received in the marketplace.”
If every business that contracted with the government could stop the release of information simply because its business is competitive, every contract would be kept secret.
That’s not the way our state Public Records Act works.
As fees for Click customers go up and up and up some more, the only party benefiting from the secrecy appears to be the broadcasters.
The News Tribune filed its appeal Thursday.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434