Another cable deadline passes, but without fanfare

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

Remember retransmission consent and all the talk about how cable TV subscribers might not be able to see their favorite network shows if an Oct. 6 deadline was not met?

Remember, then, how just before midnight on D-Day all sorts of deals were made and extensions granted so that cable subscribers never missed an episode of "Roseanne" or "60 Minutes"?

Well, another big deadline came and went unmet yesterday -- the deadline set by the 60-day extensions that were granted back in October. And guess what happened? More extensions were quietly granted by local network affiliates, and no cable subscriber missed a minute of "ABC Monday Night Football" or "Murphy Brown" because of the retransmission consent portion of the 1992 Cable TV Act.

The act says broadcast stations can demand payment from cable companies to carry their signals. Prior to the act, cable companies were able to carry over-the-air signals for free. Many cable companies refused to pay and threatened to drop some network programming.

It now appears that network programming will never be disrupted for cable subscribers, despite the large number of Maryland cable systems and local stations that have yet to make a deal.

"Where deals cannot be made by the deadlines, extensions are being granted -- that looks to be the pattern," said Emily Barr, the assistant general manager at WMAR-Channel 2, Baltimore's NBC affiliate.

Mike Easterling, the program manager at ABC-affiliate WJZ-Channel 13, agreed, saying that he expected the pattern to hold with more and more extensions granted until deals are reached.

"Our plan is to do whatever we can to continue to bring WJZ's products to all our cable viewers," Easterling said.

In line with that, Easterling said WJZ granted 60-day extensions to three small Maryland cable systems to avoid having them pull the plug on his station yesterday. The three systems are: Clearview CATV in Harford County, with 5,000 subscribers; Prestige Cable in Carroll County, with 22,000 subscribers; and Frederick Cable, with 600 subscribers in Carroll County.

WBFF-Channel 45, Baltimore's Fox affiliate, also granted extensions to several Maryland cable systems in recent days, according to General Manager Steve Marks. Those extensions, though, are for six months and include some of the area's largest cable operators.

"We want to try and make sure all parties have the time it takes to come to an agreement," Marks said yesterday, explaining the longer time frame.

WBFF granted extensions to Comcast, which owns systems in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties and has 235,000 subscribers. It also granted extensions to North Arundel Cable and Jones Intercable in Anne Arundel County, as well as the two Carroll County systems. North Arundel Cable has 41,465 subscribers, and Jones Intercable has 46,000.

Barr said that since WMAR granted 90-day extensions in October, her station will not face its first deadline until Jan. 6.

Since October, WMAR has reached agreement with the three Baltimore area Comcast systems. But the station still has not signed a deal with United Artists of Baltimore City, which has about 110,000 subscribers.

WMAR is also still trying to come to terms with North Arundel Cable, Jones Intercable and TCI Cablevision of Annapolis. The latter system, in Anne Arundel County, has 21,500 subscribers. WMAR is also continuing to negotiate with the two Carroll County systems.

WBAL-Channel 11, the local CBS affiliate, finalized deals with all Maryland cable systems prior to the October deadline. That was due in large part to the fact Hearst Broadcasting, which owns the station, struck deals with many cable systems on the station's behalf. The deals gave cable systems the right to carry the WBAL signal in return for them carrying ESPN2, a new cable channel that Hearst part-owns. Each cable system paid Hearst a fee for ESPN2 based on its number of subscribers.

Independent station WNUV-Channel 54 avoided all the confusion by choosing an option of the Cable TV Act called must-carry, which basically meant that area cable systems would carry WNUV and in return, WNUV waived its right to demand payment.

Dr. Douglas Gomery, who teaches cable TV and media economics at the University of Maryland in College Park, said he wasn't surprised by all the extensions granted yesterday.

"It's still a two-person poker game for some of these stations and cable systems. And, this way, neither side has to blink," he said.

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