Local Channel Sues Verizon and Nexstar for Unauthorized Station Signal Retransmission

On Thursday, local channel WNAC LLC filed a complaint in the District of Massachusetts against Verizon Corporate Services Group Inc. and Nexstar Media Group Inc. alleging the defendants improperly retransmitted its station signal without consent.

The plaintiff is bringing forth this suit as a result of the defendants’ “willful violations of WNAC’s retransmission consent rights for its licensed local television broadcast station WNAC-TV.”

According to the complaint, Verizon “retransmitted the Station’s signal in the Station’s designated market area in 2017-2019 without the consent from WNAC that is required by federal law, and without compensating WNAC.” As a result, the plaintiff claimed that Verizon infringed its copyrights. Meanwhile, Nexstar purportedly “knew of and materially contributed to Verizon’s unlawful actions” because it “had the right and ability to control Verizon’s unlawful actions and financially benefited from Verizon’s unlawful actions.

WNAC noted that the Communications Act bars multichannel video programming distributors (MVPD) from retransmitting a broadcast station’s signal without first obtaining express retransmission consent, and in other circumstances, a MVPD might be required to retransmit the signal of a broadcast station (a must carry). Reportedly, commercial broadcast station licensees are “required to elect between the two options of ‘must carry’ and ‘retransmission consent’ every three years and must notify MVPDs of the election.” Pursuant to the retransmission consent agreement an MVPD pays a station a monthly fee for the rights to retransmit the station’s signal.

The defendants allegedly separately and in agreement with one another “engaged in unfair or deceptive representations and acts in colluding to retransmit the Station’s signal in 2017-2019 without WNAC’s required consent, with Nexstar secretly collecting payments for unlawful retransmissions from Verizon.” The plaintiff alleged that the defendants’ conduct harmed the plaintiff, for example, by denying the plaintiff compensation for the retransmission of its signal.

The Station is a local broadcast station transmitting television programming “in the Nielsen-defined Providence, RI – New Bedford, MA Designated Market Area.” According to the complaint, the Station broadcasts programming from Fox Broadcasting Company LLC, among others. The plaintiff noted that before January 2017 LIN Television Corporation, and Media General “lawfully negotiated retransmission consent rights on behalf of WNAC with WNAC’s express consent,” which included negotiations with Verizon for retransmission consent agreements. 

Allegedly, in 2015 WNAV via LIN/Media General entered into a retransmission agreement with Verizon which covered 2015 to 2017. In 2017, Media General merged with Nexstar, which owns and operates a variety of services, including another local broadcast station, WPRI-TV, in the same market area as the plaintiff’s station. The plaintiff noted that since this was a merger, Nexstar was not “permitted to negotiate or grant retransmission consent on behalf of WNAC.” However, at the end of 2016, Nexstar entered into a retransmission consent agreement with Verizon, which included WNAC’s signal, but WNAC “was not party to the negotiation or execution” of the agreement and “did not consent to Verizon’s retransmission of the Station’s signal for the 2017-2019 period.” The plaintiff added that for the 2017-2019 cycle Verizon paid Nexstar, not WNAC for the retransmission of its signal. WNAC noted that it negotiated with Verizon on its own behalf for the 2020-2022 cycle.

WNAC proffered that the defendants should have known that WNAC did not consent to the retransmission between 2017 and 2019 and was not compensated for the retransmissions. The defendants are accused of direct, contributory, and vicarious copyright infringement of the plaintiff’s retransmission consent rights, as well as breaching Massachusetts’ Unfair Trade Practices Statute, and unjust enrichment.

The plaintiff seeks declaratory judgment in its favor, an award for damages and the fair market value of its retransmission fees for the unauthorized retransmission, pre and post judgment interest, an award for costs and fees, and other relief.

WCAN is represented by Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, L.L.P..