The war surrounding local television stations KTUU and KTVA is going to the next level, now spilling over into the Attorney General’s office with accusations of political favors.
In one corner you have Anchorage ratings powerhouse and NBC affiliate KTUU. Earlier this year it was announced Atlanta based Gray Television would be purchasing KTUU and in a separate deal purchasing independant Anchorage television station KYES from local Fireweed Communications.
In the other corner you have newly upgraded Anchorage CBS affiliate KTVA. Two years ago KTVA was purchased along with television stations KATH in Juneau, and KSCT in Sitka by Alaska’s largest telecommunications company General Communications Inc. (GCI). Since then GCI has spent millions to upgrade KTVA and bring in fresh on-air talent to compete head-to-head with KTUU in local news.
The two sides have been wrestling in communications with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over Gray’s proposed purchase of KYES. That move would give Gray television two high powered broadcast stations in the same market, something barred by FCC regulations. Gray Television is asking the FCC for an exception known as the “Failing Station Exception.”
On November 16th GCI’s attorneys filed a “Petition To Deny” with the FCC to block Gray’s purchase saying:
“Granting the application eliminates an additional competitive voice in the Anchorage market.”
On November 25th, Clyde Sniffen, Chief Assistant Attorney General for the State of Alaska, sent a letter to the FCC stating:
“The State has serious concerns about this proposed assignment and potential for significant negative effects on competition in the small Anchorage DMA.”
The letter from the AG’s office then goes on to parrot many of GCI’s arguments for objecting to the purchase including that a KTUU-KYES pairing would afford KYES greater leverage in charging GCI’s cable company to carry its content, since the pair together would account for over 50% of the Anchorage market share. In GCI’s “Petition to Deny” they elaborated further on their fear this bargaining power could increase substantially if Grey invested the resources to acquire a “big four” affiliation for KYES.
In response to the State’s letter, the attorneys for Gray Television and KYES’s current ownership, Fireweed Communications wrote a scathing letter to the FCC stating they should ignore the State entirely as a political favor to GCI:
“GCI’s immense influence in the Alaska political sphere is manifest by its apparent ability to enlist the Alaska AG on its behalf to express concerns about Gray’s proposed acquisition of KYES-TV.”
“At the same time the Commission may wish to take notice of the fact that the Alaska AG declined to intervene when GCI assembled a CBS/cable/wireless/broadband combination in Anchorage or when GCI created a CBS/NBC duopoly in Alaska’s capital.”
The implication by Gray Television is clear, the AG’s office is a political ally of GCI/KTVA and they are using that political influence to stymie a competitor.
KTUU President and General Manager Andy MacCleod declined to comment on substance of the filing by Gray and Fireweed, citing the fact that KTUU’s sale hasn’t been finalized so as of now they are still two separate companies.
Carol Schatz of Fireweed Communications, stood by the language in the filing saying “The AG being involved was heavily influenced by GCI.” She went on to say she has never had the AG’s office comment on any of their previous FCC filings.
If true, the allegation could have implications beyond the purchase of KYES. If GCI does possess both the will and ability to enlist political favors from Governor Bill Walker’s administration, that would certainly cast a shadow on the credibility of GCI’s flagship news product at KTVA. How could this station’s coverage be seen as unbiased in covering the Governor or state affairs when their parent company has such a relationship?
The allegation comes on the heels of political moves by both GCI and KTVA that themselves raise questions about their ability to provide an unbiased news product. GCI recently formed a group to advocate for a specific solution to the state’s fiscal crisis and KTVA signed off on management consultant and high profile on-air talent John Tracy crafting communications for U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s re-election campaign.
When contacted for comment GCI’s spokesman David Morris seemed unaware of the comment in Gray Television’s filing. After checking into it his only comment was to say of the AG “He’s just doing his job.”
As for the larger question of how GCI’s stations continues to produce credible news products in the face on GCI’s growing political agenda he said “those issues have been brought up since the station’s purchase. We are always going to run into those situations owning a TV station”. He also said GCI has taken great lengths to create both administrative and technological “Chinese walls” between the two organizations. When asked if GCI’s political agenda impacts KTVA’s news credibility Morris said “Ultimately viewers have to decide that for themselves, and they can always choose to change the channel.”