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Cable companies fight for shows

August 25, 1989

New federal rule will prohibit duplication of syndicated programs

By David Bender
The Spokesman-Review

Spokane television stations and regional cable companies are fighting a less-than-cheery battle over the right to bring viewers popular syndicated shows such as “Cheers,” “M*A*S*H” and “ALF.”

Cox Cable Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Cablevision join companies nationwide objecting to a federal rule that will require them to black out broadcasts from out of the area that contain syndicated programs also shown by Spokane stations. The rule takes effect Jan. 1.

Spokesmen for the two cable companies say the rule violates their constitutional rights, will give them a programming headache, and will reduce viewing options for their 75,000 subscribers. Blacking out some shows will turn popular channels into “Swiss cheese.” Some channels could be dropped.

“The ones who are going to pay for this kind of ruling are our subscribers,” said Rick Henderson, general manager of Coeur d’Alene Cablevision. “They’re being told, ‘You have to watch what the local broadcaster has to offer.’”

But representatives of the broadcast stations say the rule will ensure that they have exclusive rights to offer Inland Northwest viewers particular shows – a right they pay for when they buy many programs.

“In no way are we trying to put the cable companies in a tight spot,” said Larry Gants, program director at Spokane’s KHQ. “That’s just a consequence of protecting the value of a product we buy.”

The rule requires cable companies to black out any syndicated show that a local television station has exclusive rights to broadcast, provided the local station gives the cable companies 60 days’ notice.

Henderson said he’s already gotten letters from all four Spokane stations listing nearly 100 shows to which they claim exclusive rights. The shows include everything from “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo” on KXLY to “America’s Most Wanted” on KAYU.

The only out-of-area station immediately affected will be KSTW, a Tacoma-based station carried by Cox on channel 23 and by Cablevision on channel 11. KSTW airs numerous syndicated shows carried by Spokane’s four commercial stations.

Many of the stations the cable companies carry are cable networks, which don’t broadcast their signals to the general public. Those stations, such as The Discovery Channel and ESPN, are distributed by satellite and are available only through cable companies.

Also unaffected by the Federal Communications Commission rule is one of the biggest out-of-the-area broadcasters, WTBS, the Atlanta-based “superstation.” WTBS broadcasts over the air in Atlanta and is also distributed by satellite to cable operators nationwide.

WTBS anticipated the rule change several years ago and bought exclusive rights to the shows it airs, said Jim Ewalt, executive vice president of the Community Antenna Television Association in Fairfax, Va. Local television stations can’t broadcast those shows.

The association, which represents cable operators, has appealed the FCC’s rule to federal court, arguing, among other things, that it violates cable operators’ right to free speech.

“To say the cable operators are not allowed to rebroadcast (out-of-area channels) infringes on the cable operators’ editorial discretion,” Ewalt said.

Local station operators disagree, saying the “speech” they buy in the form of programming is far from free.

“Why should I pay a million dollars for a new show if KSTW is going to bring it in here?” said Bob Hamacher, president and general manager of KAYU. “It’s really a manner of owning the program.”

Friday, August 25, 1989

From → Cable Television

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