KSTW faces Spokane assault
New rule gives local stations a competitive advantage
By Michael Murphey
Robert J. Hamacher loves it every time he sees that blank blue screen light up on channel 23.
Hamacher, the managing general partner of KAYU-TV Partners in Spokane, is no diplomat. “I want KSTW out of here,” he says. And by exercising his exclusive rights to certain syndicated television shows in the Spokane market, he is doing his best to push the Tacoma-based independent television station back over to its own side of the Cascades.
Although the other three Spokane television stations are a little less blunt in their public assessments of competition from KSTW, they, too, are aggressively pursuing options that require Cox Cable of Spokane to black out four to five hours of programming on KSTW each day.
Syndicated exclusivity, or “syndex,” in TV talk, is a Federal Communications Commission rule that went into effect Jan. 1. The rule allows local television stations to protect their exclusive rights to syndicated programming by blacking out distant stations that reach the local market via cable.
The only Cox Cable offering that conflicts with local syndex rights is KSTW. For years, if Spokane cable viewers had already seen the episode of “Cheers” or “M*A*S*H” offered them on channels 2, 4, 6 or 28, they could switch over to channel 23 and usually find a different episode of the same.
But no more. Now, turning to channel 23 for those programs draws only that irritating blank blue screen with a Cox Cable disclaimer that FCC regulations force a blackout of the programming.
And because of the blackouts, Cox Cable officials are considering dropping KSTW. “KSTW’s future in our lineup is uncertain,” said Cox General Manager Alan Collins.
KSTW, though, is anxious to remain in the Spokane market. Bill McLain, KSTW’s public affairs director, says the station is getting more syndex pressure in Spokane than any other part of its Eastern Washington markets. And, he says, if the roles were reversed, KSTW wouldn’t be trying to black out the Spokane stations.
“The Spokane broadcasters have rights to programs and they want to protect them. We understand that,” McLain said. “But in our market area, we have not filed for syndicated exclusivity on the programs we have rights to. We prefer to be known as cable-friendly, and therefore viewer-friendly.”
The local stations are not, however, limiting Spokane viewing choices capriciously. What a local station is really doing in exercising its syndex rights is protecting a multimillion-dollar investment in syndicated programming.
And in pursuit of the “viewer-friendly” higher ground, the Spokane stations say their insistence on enforcement of syndex rules will, in the long run, be even viewer-friendlier.
“Syndex by and large is a benefit to viewers because it creates a larger variety of programming for them to watch,” said KHQ Program Director Larry Gants.
Granted, that argument suffers a little when that “larger variety” consists of half-hour-long segments of blank blue disclaimer. But, KXLY Program Director Eileen McKinnon said, “Cox is making the decision not to fill those time periods. They have the right to fill those black holes with programming.”
One local TV executive suggested that the blackouts are all part of Cox’s scheme to minimize viewer protests when the cable company finally does drop KSTW from its menu. After a few months, the theory goes, the blank screens will become such an irritant that viewers will be happy to see any picture that moves and talks.
If there is anything to that theory, KSTW is already working to counteract it. McLain says that as soon as the snow melts in the Cascades and the company can get to its microwave translator facilities, KSTW will modify those facilities so the station can beam alternate programming into the Spokane market for the blacked-out time slots.
“We’ve been in Spokane since the beginning of cable,” said McLain. “We have a reputation as the only statewide television station and we like that. We have many longtime viewers in Spokane, and we want to continue serving them.”
But even the alternative programming might not save KSTW.
“Make no mistake,” Collins said, “they are a quality service, but…”
As time goes on, he said, the local stations will tie up syndex rights to more and more shows, forcing more hours of blacked-out or alternative programs in the KSTW schedule. And the alternate programs may not maintain the current levels of quality.
Collins does not believe that Cox has lost any subscribers because of the blackouts. He said the biggest problem is confusion. Viewers don’t like the disruptions in programming, but they don’t understand the law, and don’t know who to blame.
The concept of syndicated exclusivity has been around a long time. Before cable was widespread, few syndication rights conflicts occurred. When a local station bought the rights to air a show, its competitors in the local market had no access to the show. But when cable began bringing in distant stations, which had the rights to the same shows in their local markets, conflicts arose.
Syndex rules were in effect during the ’70s and ’80s, but, Collins said, the FCC decided no solid public policy reason existed to enforce the blackouts, and that local stations “were not being damaged by the importation of a distant signal.”
The commercial broadcast lobby has been able to convince the FCC, though, that local stations were being damaged, Collins said, and the FCC re-imposed the rule Jan. 1.
Under the rule, local stations have 60 days from the time they obtain exclusive rights to a program to notify Cox Cable by letter that the local station is exercising its syndex rights on that program.
“What we’re doing when we file that letter, “ said Meg Antonius, program director for KREM, “is protecting a very significant investment.”
What television stations spend for syndicated programming is a carefully guarded secret, but Hamacher said KAYU’s investment in syndicated program rights represents several million dollars. Stations buy syndicated shows to fill the hours when programming is not provided by their networks. In Spokane, the most visible hours for syndicated programs are daytime hours filled with cartoons, or “Oprah” and “Donahue,” and the 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. time slot, filled with game shows like “Jeopardy!,” or situation comedies. Bidding competition for the most popular programs is intense.
A station like KAYU buys syndicated rights to air a set of, say, 100 episodes of “Charles in Charge” or “Magnum, P.I.” In the package, the station gets the right to air each of those 100 episodes five or six times over a specific number of years. For such a package, Hamacher said, the stations pay between $1,000 and $5,000 per episode.
The station can buy the shows without the exclusive rights at a discount. That is why “Night Court,” which airs on both KSTW and KREM at 7:30 p.m., is not blacked out on KSTW. “We negotiated the ‘Night Court’ contract with Warner Brothers prior to syndex going into effect, and they won’t amend the contract to grant syndex,” Antonius said.
With the new syndex rules, the only shows a local station would invest in without exclusive rights, the television executives say, would be very old shows, such as “Perry Mason” or “Leave It to Beaver.”
Syndex translates into increased revenue for the stations because their advertising rates are based on a show’s ratings. Since viewers now don’t have the option of watching some of their favorite programs on KSTW, the local stations all expect the ratings for their airing of those same shows to be higher.
KSTW, on the other hand, claims the attractiveness of the Spokane market is a matter of prestige, not money. KSTW advertisers buy time, McLain said, based on ratings in the Puget Sound area. Few if any advertisers on KSTW are trying to reach the Spokane market. The only revenue KSTW receives from Cox is a microwave fee. Neither Cox nor KSTW would say how much that fee is annually.
But the local station officials would not mourn KSTW’s passing here. And Hamacher said after the initial shock of the loss, viewers would not miss out on much if KSTW was not here.
KSTW officials say they offer the only 10 p.m. news in the Spokane market. Hamacher says KAYU is planning to offer a 10 p.m. national, international and local news broadcast by 1991. KSTW airs its full slate of 65 Mariners baseball games in the Spokane market. Hamacher said KAYU broadcasts 46 of those games here as well. Those 46 games, combined with ESPN’s new four-night-a-week baseball package will not leave anyone in Spokane starved for baseball, Hamacher said. KSTW also offers a very similar movie package to that aired by KAYU.
“I’m one of the people who was with KSTW for many years, and helped it become one of the strongest independent stations in the country,” Hamacher said.
But he’s running KAYU now, and, “From the standpoint of just being fair to the local broadcasters, KSTW needs to be dropped.”
Programs owned exclusively by local stations that do not presently conflict with KSTW programming include:
“Webster,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “A Current Affair,” “Highway to Heaven,” “Inside Edition,” “Kate & Allie,” “Morning Stretch,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!,” owned by KHQ.
Sunday, March 18, 1990