Cable glitch takes WJZ fans out of game

August 25, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

The president of United Artists Cable apologized yesterday to subscribers who'd tuned in Channel 13 Monday night hoping to see ABC's coverage of big men in football gear but instead saw local access cable coverage of large women in bathing suits.

"We are embarrassed and really sorry for any inconvenience we caused subscribers," said Euan Fannell, general manager of United Artists in Baltimore. "But we think it was caused by a technical problem . . . and had nothing to do with the issue of retransmission."

WJZ (Channel 13) officials agreed with Fannell's explanation of why the "Ms. Big & Beautiful Pageant," a local beauty contest for large women, was broadcast for more than hour Monday night instead of the NFL game between the New Orleans Saints and the Chicago Bears. United Artists had a problem with reception of a microwave signal from Channel 13, officials from both sides said.

But Rick Seaby, Channel 13's director of engineering, said the angry viewer calls that poured into United Artists during the pre-emption of the football game might be an indication of what's ahead for cable operators who bump network affiliates from their lineup as a result of the retransmission-consent clause of the 1992 Cable Bill, which takes effect Oct. 6.

The clause allows local stations to demand that cable operators pay them for the right to carry their signal. While most stations have demanded payment under the clause, many cable operators are refusing to pay.

If agreement is not reached by Oct. 6, many network affiliates will not be on cable systems.

And that means cable subscribers will not be able to see their favorite network shows, like "ABC Monday Night Football," unless they switch from cable to over-the-air reception.

Channel 13 and United Artists have not yet reached agreement. And some viewers thought retransmission-consent was behind what happened about 9 p.m. Monday, when those who were watching the football game on Channel 13 suddenly saw the TV screen fill with snow.

The game was replaced a short time later with local access programming from Channel 41. The game did not come back on until 10:30 p.m., Seaby said.

Adding to the confusion was an informational announcement on Channel 41 featuring Fannell explaining retransmission-consent to viewers and warning that some stations might disappear from the cable lineup as a result.

Channel 13 and United Artists were swamped with calls.

"If anything, this might be a sample of the firestorm for cable operators if they take local channels off," Seaby said. "It's food for thought anyway."

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