A Mess Of Cable Changes

Every once in a while, we dip into the legal programming notices section of Time Warner Cable’s website, where the company has to disclose some upcoming changes without shouting them from the rooftops.

The list currently up for TWC’s Northeast Ohio service area is long, complex and detailed.

But…what looks innocuous on the legal notice could well develop into a problem not many anticipated.

The notice includes what most usually think is “boilerplate” language about the potential loss of carriage of a number of broadcast and cable networks:

Time Warner Cable’s agreements with programmers to carry their services routinely expire from time to time. We are usually able to obtain renewals or extensions of such agreements, and carriage of programming services is discontinued only in rare circumstances. The following agreements with programmers are due to expire soon, and we may be required to cease carriage of one or more of these services in the near future.

The list this time is pretty extensive, with a number of local broadcast outlets there (with the wide area TWC’s Northeast Ohio system covers):

WBNX, WKYC, WKYC HD, WKYC Weather Plus, WAOH, WIVM, WOHZ, WCMH, WYFX, WYTV, WTRF

We’re hearing from local broadcast sources that the renewal of such agreements could be “a mess” in the coming weeks, and that nothing should be taken for granted about the ability to retain cable carriage of area stations…even, if not especially, large market network affiliates run by major TV group owners.

This comes on the heels of the lengthy contract dispute between LIN TV and Time Warner Cable, which forced three Ohio stations off the company’s systems – NBC affiliate WDTN/2 Dayton, CW affiliate WWHO/53 in the Columbus market, and FOX affiliate WUPW/36 in Toledo.

Though that deal was eventually struck, viewers of those stations either were forced to get rabbit ears or other antennas for a number of weeks, or they dumped cable for satellite – with heavy nudging from both the LIN stations and from the satellite providers.

Or, they scattered to competitors. LIN’s WIVB/4, the CBS affiliate in Buffalo NY, is still recovering to regain its news leadership position after the TWC blackout…with Granite’s WKBW/7 (ABC) gaining significant audience numbers, if we remember right, at WIVB’s expense.

From what we’re hearing, you can expect that to be more the norm, as TV group owners try to squeeze every penny they can get…in the face of the economic meltdown, the decline of advertising and everything else we’re getting tired of writing about as a media-related blog.

Meanwhile, the battle over retransmission consent is at the top of the cable companies’ agendas. Note this fresh quote from Time Warner Cable’s top executive at an investor conference from The Hollywood Reporter:

Time Warner Cable president and CEO Glenn Britt on Monday cited retransmission deals with broadcasters as a key factor of cost pressures for cable operators beyond sports content and said his company may suggest the new Congress review regulation on the issue.

The cable folks are also getting pinched in these troubled times, with companies saying they’re seeing a reduced demand for high-end services like DVRs, digital phone and the like – blaming, of course, the down economy. (Which, by the way, reduces the number of new homes that would be receptive to a cable company’s offerings.)

Oh, and that’s not to mention intense competition on the ground not only from satellite companies, but from phone companies’ new video services (AT&T’s U-verse, Verizon FiOS, etc.).

The upshot, from what we’re hearing…from now on, if a local broadcast station has a carriage renewal agreement negotiation in the works…don’t take the renewal for granted, and expect more hardball from both sides of the broadcast/cable carriage debate.

In other TWC changes, though the NFL Network has fought a long, unsuccessful battle for non-sports-tier carriage on TWC and other cable systems, Major League Baseball’s MLB Network will start its life on Time Warner’s local systems, in the Digital Basic tier, from day one on January 1, 2009.

One good reason for that – the network counts Time Warner as one of its cable company investors. (Satellite’s DirecTV is also on the list.)

And if we’re reading the notice right, the “Outdoor Channel” will add Digital Basic coverage as soon as this week. It’s been up in the Digital Sports tier.

The programming notice also covers TWC’s operations in the Erie PA area, and confirms what we’d already heard…on December 18th, the suburban Erie system formerly served by Adelphia will become the last (as far as we know) of the company’s systems in the region to get the digital channel lineup realignment started earlier this year elsewhere in the TWC Northeast Ohio universe.

And the notice also shows a number of carriage changes for local network affiliates in the fringe areas of their coverage, due to their duplication with in-market stations.

For example, Youngstown’s network affiliates will leave the company’s system in Windham, in far eastern Portage County, which is still in the Cleveland TV market despite being just a few miles from downtown Warren.

Some Columbus network affiliates will lose their carriage in systems in the Mansfield area, though CBS affiliate WBNS/10 apparently hangs onto Mansfield itself, while losing some nearby systems. (Mansfield is halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, but is in the Cleveland market.)

Toledo CBS affiliate WTOL/11 loses TWC’s New London, Norwalk and Willard areas.

And there’s a TBN shuffle ahead, as the religious broadcaster’s Sandusky-based affiliate WGGN/52 loses a number of North Central and even Northeast Ohio TWC systems – as far east as Mentor, an area which was part of the old Comcast system that also served Elyria.

Those looking for TBN will instead find the company’s Northeast Ohio owned-and-operated station, WDLI/17 Canton, added to the lineup.

That addition will apparently include the former Adelphia systems out of Cleveland, which never carried WDLI for the most part. The TBN O&O will, it sounds like, bump foreign news channel SCOLA up into “Digital Access” – we believe that puts it on all digital boxes, even those without “Basic” service.

That would leave analog room for WDLI in the greater Cleveland area. (TWC’s Akron/Canton systems have carried Canton’s Channel 17 since the beginning. And we mean the beginning, back to the early days of both the cable systems and the station, which was once locally-programmed secular independent WJAN.)

WDLI also picks up clearances in Time Warner’s Ashtabula and Conneaut system, bumping Erie PBS affiliate WQLN/54 off the lineup there.

In a related item, TWC’s changes in the company’s Columbus-based Mid-Ohio system are bouncing Zanesville NBC affiliate WHIZ-TV/18 off of the Time Warner systems in Perry County, a move that the Zanesville Times Recorder reports is actively being fought by the WHIZ folks.

Quoting the article:

Judy Barbao, spokesperson for Time Warner in Columbus, said the decision was based on trying to eliminate duplicate programming.

The article notes that WHIZ is going to retain its carriage in Coshocton County, along with, of course, in its home county of Muskingum. Both Coshocton County and Perry County are in the Columbus TV market…the tiny Zanesville market only includes Muskingum County.

But WHIZ boss Hank Littick points out that the station provides local news and sports coverage to Perry County, just to the southwest of Zanesville.

Most of these changes are slated to take place on December 31st…

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