It's D-day for cable subscribers Operators' face-off with local stations may mean the loss of many channels

September 06, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Today is an important one for cable TV subscribers. It's the deadline for cable operators to inform them which local stations and network shows, like popular sitcoms "Roseanne" and "Seinfeld," they might not see on cable after Oct. 6. This, like the recent rate restructuring, comes courtesy of the 1992 Cable TV Act.

And what cable customers are finding out leaves many of them confused and worried.

Area cable operators do not yet have permission from the majority of Baltimore and Washington network affiliates to carry their programming. The law allows broadcasters to seek payment from cable systems to carry their signals, and most have. The cable operators, meanwhile, have refused to pay.

After a summer of negotiating, the two sides seem farther apart than ever as they continue their high-stakes poker game.

"There are many group owners and stations in key markets . . . who are prepared to play this hand all the way out," Dean Welles, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said last week.

In the worst case scenario, Mr. Welles said, that means as of Oct. 6, some viewers might not be able to see the baseball playoffs or "Murphy Brown" on their cable TV.

The notices -- which must be in the mail by today to give consumers 30 days' advance notice of possible channel loss -- vary from system to system.

United Artists' subscribers in Baltimore City received this explanation from General Manager Euan Fannell: "According to federal law, local broadcast stations must grant their 'retransmission consent' in order for us to continue to carry them. . . . Many broadcasters have demanded payment in return for this 'retransmission consent,' but we refuse to allow you to pay extra for TV others may receive for free."

Comcast Cablevision's Stephen Burch told his subscribers in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties: "We have received notice from the following television stations that we may not carry programs without their specific permission -- WJZ [Channel 13], WMAR [Channel 2], WBFF [Channel 45]. . . .

"Since, as of this date, they have not given us permission to continue carrying their programs, beginning October 6, 1993, we can no longer carry these stations on our lineup. After that date, ++ you can continue to see these channels by using an antenna."

Receiving his Comcast notice in the mail, said Arnold E. Blumberg, 22, a Baltimore County cable subscriber, was like "an incredible stab in the heart -- to open the mail and find out you're going to lose all your favorite shows. I'll tell you, I think this might just push some people to buy satellite dishes."

Unhappy customers

Richard Huffman, 64, also of Baltimore County, reacted by saying, "Based on the notice I received, those stations are gone as of Oct. 6. So, now . . . I'm going to have to go out and buy a TV antenna to get the broadcast channels. I guess the whole thing is probably going to cost me $150 -- the antenna, the installation, plus my cable bill. . . . I'm not sure who's to blame. But I can tell you I'm not happy."

Mr. Blumberg and Mr. Huffman are not alone in their concern.

Comcast reported receiving about 7,000 calls a day last week from its 250,000 Baltimore-area subscribers asking representatives to explain retransmission consent.

It was the same for several other area cable operators -- from smaller systems, like North Arundel Cable in Anne Arundel County with its 12,000 subscribers, to United Artists Cable in Baltimore City with 107,000 subscribers.

"It's unbelievable, the number of calls," said David H. Nevins, a spokesman for Comcast. "But I want to stress that these are calls of inquiries. The callers are not mad, they've received our notice on retransmission consent, and they're confused."

Part of the confusion is caused by the notices' politicking. Local broadcasters say they are not trying to take money out of the pockets of United's subscribers, as Mr. Fannell charges. They want United's money. And the loss of WBFF (Channel 45), the Baltimore Fox affiliate, is not the done deal of Comcast's letter.

"I don't want to single out Comcast, because we have a good relationship and I'm confident we will make an agreement with them," said Steve Marks, general manager of Channel 45. "But that mailer they sent out attempts to put pressure on the local stations.

"The cable operators are trying to make subscribers think their rates are going up because of local stations -- that this is our fault. Their rates have been going up for 10 years and the reality is that we didn't have a thing to do with it."

The reality of retransmission consent is that both sides are still negotiating and probably will keep talking right up until Oct. 6. Both are hopeful that local stations won't be disappearing from cable systems next month, adding to the confusion subscribers are already experiencing because of the rate restructuring that went into effect Sept. 1.

Still negotiating

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