Cambridge cable restores WMAR but not WJZ

October 07, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

WMAR (Channel 2) and its NBC programs were back on cable TV in Cambridge yesterday afternoon.

But there was no "Home Improvement" last night as WJZ (Channel 13) and its ABC lineup remained off Marcus Cable following an Oct. 6 deadline for cable systems to get permission from local stations to carry their programs.

"We're still talking," Marcellus Alexander, general manager of WJZ, said yesterday. "But we're still not on in Cambridge, and I don't know when we will be. We think the offer we initially made was fair."

The offer included Maryland's most popular TV station, WJZ, allowing Marcus to carry its programs for free for 60 days while talks continued. Under the Cable TV Act of 1992, cable systems had to get permission by midnight Tuesday.

"Sixty days is not enough. . . . What are we going to do, run this Chinese fire drill every 60 days?" Lou Burrelli, senior vice president for the Marcus Group, said yesterday from the group's corporate headquarters in Dallas.

"I hear the TV station [WJZ] is really whipping things up down there in Cambridge," Burrelli said. He was referring to on-air messages by WJZ urging viewers to call Marcus Cable as well as to reports on WJZ's newscast last night about how unhappy cable subscribers were to have Channel 13 taken off the system.

'Abuse of journalism'

"I think that's a terrible abuse of journalism, a station sending a news team to report on a negotiation it's involved in like that," Burrelli said.

"Look, we're not going to cut off our noses in Cambridge. If things get too ugly, we'll have to re-evaluate the situation. But, right now, Channel 13 is off the system. In its place, we're running a message trying to explain the situation to subscribers. We're trying to reduce the confusion."

Typical of general confusion in the wake of the deadline was the situation WMAR found itself in yesterday morning.

Emily Barr, the station's acting general manager, said she left the office late Tuesday thinking that she had a deal with Marcus that would keep her station on the cable system in Cambridge.

She didn't know WMAR was pulled from the cable lineup until she read about it in yesterday's newspaper.

"We reached an agreement over the phone, and I sent them a fax before I left Tuesday night," Barr said yesterday. "Today, they told me they never received the fax . . . and that's why we were taken off the system."

Burrelli said Marcus never received the fax, but that it was going to accept a 30-day extension in WMAR's case because the two sides were close to a deal.

The station was back on cable TV in Cambridge yesterday afternoon, he said.

Nationally, about 90 percent of all network affiliates remained on cable systems following the deadline, according to Chuck Sherman, senior vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters. But Sherman said that was only an estimate. Results of an NAB survey will not be available until later this week.

The 90 percent figure has led some to conclude that the broadcaster-cable showdown is now history and that cable has won hands down.

But cable systems in markets ranging from Bakersfield, Calif., to Portland, Maine, were swamped with customer complaints in the wake of having dropped two or more network affiliates at midnight Tuesday.

Many deals are temporary

Furthermore, one-third to one-half of all the deals made between broadcast stations and cable companies are only temporary -- 60- or 90-day extensions -- according to the NAB. The matter has not been resolved in those cases, merely delayed.

That's the situation in Baltimore where WMAR (Channel 2) and WBFF (Channel 45) granted widespread 90- and 60-day extensions,respectively.

"This is not as simple a matter as some would like to think it is -- with a quick resolution and obvious winners and losers," said a cable company official who wished to remain anonymous.

For example, Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) and Comcast, the nation's two largest cable companies, put their spin doctors on the phones this week to say they had not paid a cent for permission to carry local stations and therefore are the clear winners.

But that is not the case. TCI and Comcast are, in fact, going to pay millions as a result of deals signed in recent days.

TCI gained permission to carry the seven stations owned by ABC and the five owned by Hearst in return for carrying ESPN2 on its cable systems. One of Hearst's stations is WBAL (Channel 11) in Baltimore.

While it's true that TCI did not pay any money up front for that permission, it will pay ABC and Hearst (the co-owners of ESPN2) 15 cents per subscriber per month for ESPN2 for six years.

Industry analysts put the final amount that will flow from TCI to ABC and Hearst at $400 million under the terms of the deal announced this week.

In that situation, it appears the broadcasters won -- or at least got some real money for the rights to their stations.

In other cases, such as the one where CBS lost its nerve and simply gave away rights to its seven stations last week, it appears that cable won.

"Some stations did well and some did not," the NAB's Sherman said yesterday. "The verdict's still out in a lot of places."

"With all the extensions, it would be a big mistake to talk about the situation as resolved," said David Nevins, a spokesman for Comcast Cable.

"Things have gone pretty well in terms of deals in Baltimore. Let's hope that continues through the next 60 and 90 days."

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