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TV Stations, Cable Clash on FCC Plan

The Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to give local broadcasters exclusive rights to syndicated programs within their market drew harsh criticism Thursday from local cable officials, who insisted that if the new rules take effect, viewers will lose many of the programming choices they have become accustomed to over the past few years.

Executives at local TV stations, which stand to benefit from the proposed syndicated exclusivity rule, welcomed the FCC’s action but said it probably would have little effect on their programming or the size of their viewership.

The new rules would force cable operators to black out or substitute alternative programming for syndicated programs carried on out-of-town superstations that are also broadcast on a local station.

Under these rules, local viewers would only be able to see reruns of “Cheers,” for example, on KTLA-TV Channel 5, and not, as they can now, on some local cable systems on Chicago-based superstation WGN. Cable operators would have to black out reruns of “Magnum, P.I.” on cable-superstation WWOR of New York because KTLA holds those local rights as well.

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The effect of this proposal, said Chris Derick, president of the Southern California Cable Assn., will be that cable systems will spend so much time blacking out programs on the superstations that they will simply drop them from their programming lineup.

“If you’re blocking these programs to honor the exclusivity rules, you’re going to have blank screens for much of the time and that will be a tremendous irritant to the consumer, Derick said. “Cable operators have to pay a significant amount to carry these stations and if they end up with very little programming on them, they will simply drop those stations entirely. The end result is that the viewer will have fewer choices.”

Local stations stand to benefit most from the rules if they go into effect one year from now, as proposed, because the syndicated shows they purchase will be protected from duplication by signals imported from other cities.

“We pay umpteen zillion dollars to air reruns of ‘MASH,’ ” said Bob Morse, general manager of KTTV Channel 11, “and today there is absolutely nothing to prevent a cable system from pulling in a (superstation) from some outlying area that airs the show. That weakens our show. That hurts us. It gives people a chance to watch the show on another station and they might not want to watch it twice.”

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But other local stations said Thursday that new rules will probably have little impact on them.

Steve Bell, general manager at KTLA, said that there is no evidence that WGN’s daily airings of “Cheers” dilutes the audience for “Cheers” on KTLA. Cable penetration is only about 40% in Los Angeles, Bell said, and the ratings for those superstations here are negligible.

Bell also said that stations in Los Angeles have built their reputations through local programming such as news, sports and coverage of the Rose Parade, not on the value of their syndicated programming. Duplication of syndicated reruns on a cable channel that has no local programming doesn’t hurt a local station that has entrenched itself in the community, he said.

Bob Hyland, general manager at KCBS-TV Channel 2, agreed with Bell, indicating that local stations spend a good deal of money promoting their syndicated programs, while superstations merely list the programs in the TV listings. The elimination of “Simon & Simon” on WWOR in the L.A. market will probably not bring a significant number of additional viewers to Channel 2, he speculated.

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Bell said that the FCC’s proposal, announced Wednesday, could help stations in smaller markets where cable penetration is higher. Exclusive rights to syndicated reruns in those areas theoretically could attract more viewers to the station.

The new rules would permit superstations to buy syndicated programs exclusively, but several of the TV executives contacted Thursday said it is doubtful that these stations could pay as much for a particular program as the combined revenue generated by selling it to local stations in some 200 markets nationwide.

While superstation WTBS in Atlanta sells national advertising and is “the only active superstation,” according to Bert Carp, a WTBS executive, the other superstations are interested primarily in their local market and probably would not change their programming to avoid blackouts in other markets, even if it meant being dropped by cable systems.

Carp said the proposed rules probably would not hurt WTBS, which may change some of its programming to avoid blackouts and is likely to go after syndicated programs on an exclusive basis in the future.

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Will local stations be willing to pay more for syndicated reruns if they are going to be guaranteed exclusive rights to those programs? KTTV’s Morse said that while the proposed rules probably wouldn’t drive syndication prices up, they might keep them from going down. Most of the syndicators contacted were unsure what the impact on prices would be.

In an official statement, Paramount Television would say only the new rules appear to be a positive step. Joe Indelli, president of product distribution for MTM, which syndicates reruns of “Rhoda,” “Newhart” and “Remington Steele,” said they might prove helpful in selling shows that have not been seen in syndication before.

The FCC said that the new rules would help reduce the glut of repetitive programming that now dominates local television, and encourage cable television to come up with more original and alternative programming. But Derick said that the cable industry “has a wonderful history of creating new programming on such channels, and to suggest that it is necessary to stimulate this industry is factually incorrect and really a disservice to the consumer.

“There is no indication that any harm has been done to local broadcasters by these superstations. We don’t have a sick cable industry. We don’t have a sick broadcasting industry. It doesn’t make sense, and I think you are going to see a great deal of public outcry if these rules do go through.”

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Segments of the cable industry already have promised to fight the new rules in court.


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