Television stations, cable companies brace for war over transmission rights

June 18, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

How would you like to turn on your $30-a-month cable TV service one day this fall and find out that you can no longer see "Seinfeld," "Roseanne" or "60 Minutes"?

How would you feel if you found out that because you do have cable you won't be able to watch the NBA playoffs or the Super Bowl?

The terms "retransmission consent" and "must-carry" probably don't mean much to most TV viewers today. But for the two biggest factions in the TV industry, today is the first day of the rest of their lives under the new Cable TV Act.

Retransmission consent is part of the Cable TV Act passed by Congress last fall. Ultimately, it will force cable companies, such as Comcast and United Artists of Baltimore, to carry all commercial stations that want to be on their cable systems and, in many cases, to pay stations for the right to carry them.

Under the must-carry provision of the act, the cable company has to carry the station. But if a station elects must-carry, then the cable company does not have to pay anything to carry the station's programs.

Today, TV stations are mailing out thousands of letters informing the cable companies of their demands.

A survey on the content of the letters suggests that area TV stations and cable companies are headed for a showdown. And from the exchanges of threats this week, it looks as if some subscribers in Maryland could end up paying even more for cable TV and getting much less.

"It's an absolute mess," said Steve Burch, vice president o Comcast's cable operations in Maryland and Delaware. "You have two bodies wrestling with each other over this issue -- the networks and the cable operators. And the ones who are going to suffer are the consumers."

WMAR (Channel 2), WBAL (Channel 11), WJZ (Channel 13), WBFF ( Channel 45) and WNUV (Channel 54) are mainly choosing the retransmission consent option, which means they are telling local cable companies that as of Oct. 6, a date established by the Cable TV Act, they can no longer carry their programs if the cable companies don't pay for them.

While their definitions of "pay" vary, the basic position is the one sounded this week by Channel 2 General Manager Arnold J. Kleiner: "Obviously our programs [those of Channel 2 and NBC] are worth something, and we want to be paid for them . . . or the cable operators won't be able to show them. What if they couldn't show the Super Bowl [on NBC] next January?"

Comcast's Burch replies: "Our answer is that we've always enjoyed healthy relationships with the local stations. However, this is a new ballgame. As much as they feel there is a value of ABC, NBC or CBS on cable, we feel there's an equal or greater value of them being on cable for themselves. . . . In fact, we might want to see why they shouldn't pay us to be on our cable system."

If a station chooses retransmission, the cable operator is not forced to carry it, which is the basis for Burch's threat to drop stations from his cable service. Such a move could cripple a station's ability to sell local advertising, especially for shows like local newscasts.

Cable operators said they have other weapons in their arsenals, too. Glenn Jones, chairman of Jones Intercable, is quoted in a the Wall Street Journal as saying that his company will begin installing switches so viewers can toggle between cable service and over-the-air reception for broadcast programs on stations that refuse to let Jones carry their signals.

Burch said he's considering such a cable switch in Baltimore County, too.

There is some movement toward a middle ground locally.

Tele-Communications Inc., the parent company of United Artists Baltimore, for example, has already negotiated an agreement with Fox Broadcasting to pay Fox for the right of its cable systems to carry such Fox shows as "The Simpsons." Fox will in turn distribute the money among its affiliates, such as Channel 45 in Baltimore. So, in effect, a deal has already been worked out between Channel 45 and United Artists in Baltimore, thanks to their parent companies.

And there is also the feeling among some media critics that the threats heard this week are merely the rhetoric of early negotiations, which will lead to agreements before Oct. 6.

Dr. Douglas Gomery, who teaches cable TV economics at the University of Maryland at College Park, said there is some of that going on this week. But Gomery also said that he believes some of the threats will be realized come October and "a handful of stations in major markets will not be on cable systems," either because they were dropped by cable operators or refused to allow their shows to be cablecast.

"This is a defining moment in cable TV," Gomery said. "Cable companies are going to have to pay something . . . and for the first time, people are now going to have sit down and figure out what these programs are worth to them."

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