In cable payment standoff, High Noon draws closer Few deals reported as deadline nears for keeping TV stations on cable

September 24, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,STAFF GRAPHICTelevision Critic

Cable companies and Baltimore-area network television stations have stepped up talks about what local cable subscribers will see when they turn on their TV sets in two weeks. Proposals include everything from new cable channels for the owners of local stations to sharing some business costs.

Baltimore's situation is among the worst in the country for programming agreements between the four major network stations -- ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox -- and cable companies, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

When talks started last spring, broadcasters said they wanted cash in exchange for letting cable companies use their programming. But most cable operators refused to pay.

With the Oct. 6 deadline looming, squabbles around the country between the two sides are going public, undercutting the notion that both are bluffing.

* Marcellus Alexander, general manager of WJZ (Channel 13), took to the airwaves this week with special reports giving his side of the issue and trying to shoot down what he called "cable scare tactics."

* In Dallas, the NBC affiliate was moved from its prime lineup slot of Channel 3 to the "cable Siberia" of Channel 35 by TeleCable because the cable company did not like the way talks were going. The station, KXAS (Channel 5), responded with a postcard campaign to get its viewers to threaten to disconnect their cable service. TeleCable warns that it might yet drop the station before the Oct. 6 deadline to make an example of it.

* In Pittsburgh, NBC affiliate WPXI, which carries Steelers' football games, announced in a newscast that Armstrong Cable would drop the station Oct. 6. But Armstrong Cable says no such decision had been made, and charged the Cox station with irresponsibly using its newscast to stir up subscriber ire. The broadcaster and cable company continue to battle it out over the airwaves, cable wires and in newspaper ads.

* In markets from Baton Rouge, La., to Bakersfield, Calif., local anchors are taking to the airwaves in prime-time specials to attack cable operators and warn that their stations might be dropped from cable Oct. 6.

In Baltimore, neither WJZ (Channel 13), the ABC affiliate, nor WMAR (Channel 2), the NBC affiliate, has agreements with any area cable companies. WBAL (Channel 11), the CBS affiliate, has agreements with Comcast in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, but not with United Artists in Baltimore City.

This week, WBFF (Channel 45), Baltimore's Fox affiliate, gave all area cable companies the right to carry its programs for 60 days beyond the Oct. 6 deadline mandated by law while negotiations between the station and cable operators continue.

For an additional two months Maryland viewers will be able to watch such Fox shows as "The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children," as well as WBFF's "News at Ten," according to WBFF General Manager Steve Marks.

While it makes the short-term picture clear for Fox programs, WBFF's move doesn't appear to have created a domino effect on the rest of the market. The Oct. 6 showdown looms as large as ever, other broadcasters said.

"A lot of the smaller cable systems want extensions because they can't get through all their work by Oct. 6," said Joe Heston, station manager of WBAL. "But, as of right now, all of us continue to believe that having a deadline keeps everybody's attention on the issue.

"The fact of the matter is there could be a much higher level of interest [on the part of cable companies to resolve the matter] between midnight and 10:30 in the morning on Oct. 6 if some signals are not on the cable system at that time," Mr. Heston said.

Fox corporate headquarters asked its affiliates to extend the deadline in all markets nationwide hoping to convince cable operators to take Fox programming free while making room for its new FX entertainment channel.

TCI Cable, which owns United Artists in Baltimore City, agreed to the deal with Fox last summer, which is why United Artists can carry WBFF.

PTC But such major cable companies as Comcast have not agreed to the plan. Fox wants more time to deal with those companies, which is why it asked WBFF to grant extensions to Comcast in Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties.

The best deals

The deals that have worked best thus far between broadcasters and cable operators are those in which the cable operator gets permission to carry a local station or group of local stations in return for guaranteeing the group owner of the stations that it will carry a new cable channel run by the group owner.

That's part of what's going on behind the scenes with WMAR's negotiations. Emily Barr, acting general manager at WMAR, declined to comment beyond saying: "We are busy negotiating."

However, Scripps Howard, which owns WMAR, is doing much of the negotiating for its stations. What Scripps wants in return for granting permission to carry WMAR programming is guaranteed carriage of its new Home & Garden cable channel.

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