Pacts Enable Cable to Keep Broadcast Stations in Picture : Television: County operators get clearance to retransmit broadcasters' signals, in exchange for space for new programs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The specter of TV screens gone blank across the Southland has disappeared.

All of Orange County's cable operators reached agreements with broadcast stations--hammered out late Tuesday as a midnight deadline approached--to carry the broadcasts as usual.

Without such agreements, the signals of Channels 4, 5 and 11 were set to be pulled from the air in parts of Orange County at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

"The document was being reviewed by our president last night at 10:30 p.m. their time back East," Jeff Carlson, area vice president for Comcast Cablevision, said Wednesday. Comcast, which serves Buena Park, Fullerton and several other Orange County communities, reached a last-minute agreement with KNBC Channel 4.

Regionally, an informal poll of 100 cable systems on Wednesday showed that Southland cable operators had received clearances from all eligible broadcast stations to retransmit their signals, according to the Southern California Cable Assn.

The furor results from a new federal law that gives broadcasters the right to deny cable carriage if the two parties cannot reach a "retransmission" agreement. Until Wednesday, cable companies were permitted to pick up and/or retransmit signals from broadcast stations in their area without a broadcaster's permission and without a charge.

Other stations, such as CNN and MTV, charge cable operators for the use of the programming.

In what amounts to a major victory for cable operators, none of the station groups owned by ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox will receive direct cash payments for their signals.

Instead, the broadcasters negotiated for space for new programs on the cable dials.

"I think if the game has been played a bit differently, they all would have gone for money," said John Reardon, station manager and vice president of KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles.

He said that early concessions by Capital Cities/ABC Inc. and by Fox to swap air time for dollars set the pace for negotiations at the other broadcast groups. ABC owns 80% of ESPN2, which will go on the air now in many markets, and Fox is developing some new programming.

KTLA is launching a new program as well, the Food Network, in mid-November. Reardon said that persuading cable operators to carry that programming is a coup for him. Such negotiations, which typically take a year, were in this instance compressed into three months.

"We used retransmission (negotiations) to drive that distribution," he said.

But Reardon said broadcasters probably could have bargained harder: "Even with cable, the majority of viewing still goes to local broadcast. Take those seven (broadcasters) away, and what is the value of cable to you?"

If cable operators had agreed to pay for broadcast stations, they would have probably passed that cost along to the consumer. Mark Mangiola, executive vice president of Paragon Cablesystems, said that hard bargaining by cable operators saved the customer money.

One provision of the federal law, enacted in October, 1992, was that rates to customers be lower.

"If we had paid for retransmission, it would look like the law had failed completely from the rate side," said Mangiola, whose company serves the Orange County communities of Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and Westminster.

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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