Cable talks inch toward 11th hour WJZ may be let go after midnight

October 05, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Fans of ABC's highly rated "Home Improvement" may not find Tim Allen on their cable TV lineup tomorrow night. So far WJZ (Channel 13), the local ABC station, has not reached agreements or granted extensions to most area cable companies in accordance with tonight's midnight deadline mandated by the Cable TV Act of 1992.

However, a flurry of last-minute deals will keep the remaining three local network stations -- WMAR (Channel 2), WBFF (Channel 45) and WBAL (Channel 11) -- on area cable systems for at least the next 60 days.

"We're still talking to WJZ," said David Nevins, a spokesman for Comcast, which has about 255,000 cable customers in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties.

"We expect it will go right to the 11th hour, up to 11:59 [tonight]. We're still hopeful about an agreement or the possibility of an extension," Mr. Nevins added.

"Talks continue and progress is being made," WJZ General Manager Marcellus Alexander said yesterday.

With its last-minute flux, Baltimore mirrors the national picture, which involves 11,000 cable systems negotiating with 775 affiliates on behalf of 60 million subscribers, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

About 90 percent of the nation's stations will remain on cable come tomorrow, the NAB said.

However, negotiations have reached an impasse in enough cities that network affiliates are expected to be missing from cable systems in several key markets:

* In Los Angeles, NBC-owned KNBC and Century Cable have stopped talking, and it is likely the station will not be on the cable system of 220,000 subscribers tomorrow.

* In San Francisco, KPIX, the CBS affiliate, has not granted the area's major cable companies permission to rebroadcast any of its programming. And, the station may not be on cable at all. (KPIX is owned by Group W, which also owns WJZ in Baltimore.)

* In Corpus Christi, Texas, the ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates have banded together in their fight against Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), the nation's largest cable operator. The three affiliates definitely will be off the TCI system tomorrow. Denver-based TCI, which owns United Artists Cable of Baltimore City, has played the hardest hardball of all the cable companies, saying since the spring that it would not pay a penny for permission to carry local stations' programming.

"There will be a number of other major markets dropping network affiliates at midnight [tonight]," said Mr. Nevins of Comcast, although he declined to name them. Comcast is one of the country's largest cable

firms with 70 systems carrying a total of 300 network affiliates.

Standing ground

The local presence of cable giants Comcast and TCI is one of the reasons the battle here has been so hard fought, with few deals made until the last minute. The two cable companies have not given much ground, and, generally, it has worked well for them.

Comcast and TCI stared down WBFF, the Fox station, and WMAR, the NBC station, and both blinked.

Two weeks ago, WBFF granted 60-day extensions to all area cable operators. Last week, WMAR granted 90-day extensions. Essentially, the two stations will be giving away their programming for two or three months even though the new cable law says they can charge cable operators for it after midnight tonight.

In WBFF's case, the station could still come out of it with money, because Fox is negotiating on behalf of all its affiliates. Fox is offering cable operators the right to carry its affiliates' signals in return for the cable operators agreeing to carry a new Fox cable channel, FX.

Fox will receive 25 cents a subscriber per month from the cable operators for the channel, and will return 20 percent of that to participating affiliates. For the 365,000 local Comcast and TCI subscribers, that would mean $219,000 a year in retransmission fees for WBFF. The deal is for three years.

Things do not look as good for WMAR. Its owner, Scripps Howard Broadcasting, has been negotiating on its behalf, trying to persuade cable companies to carry its Home & Garden cable channel in return for the right to carry its stations' programming. There are reportedly not many takers.

WMAR's extensions may have only postponed the inevitable. In 90 days, it could wind up giving its signal away for little or nothing in order to stay on the Comcast and TCI systems.

WBAL has refused to grant any extensions, and looks as if it has come out a winner, thanks largely to its parent, Hearst Broadcasting.

Surprising deal

The most surprising last-minute deal was the one this weekend between Hearst and TCI, which will keep WBAL on United Artists in Baltimore City.

Hearst, which owns 20 percent of ESPN, cast its lot with ABC, which owns 80 percent of the sports channel. ABC and Hearst then offered cable companies the right to carry their 13 combined stations if the cable companies would carry ESPN2 and pay 15 cents a subscriber per month to them.

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