WCVB off cable on January 1, 2012?

December 31, 2011

Update (1:11 PM): We’ve just heard from WCVB and they will be carried on all local cable systems including RCN and Norwood Light Broadband in the new year. At this time, the page on WCVB’s site has not been updated to reflect this yet.

If you watch WCVB, the local ABC affiliate in Boston (aka Channel 5), you may have noticed the “Programming Alert” banner scrolling at the bottom of the screen. WCVB’s parent company, Hearst, and a couple of local cable companies have not come to an agreement to carry the station past today, December 31st, 2012. Furthermore, the situation is not unique to WCVB with many local stations across the country having their carriage agreements expire at the end of this year. However, with a few exceptions, Multi-Channel News points out that many of them have now been resolved.

According to WCVB (link now removed), RCN and Norwood Light Broadband are the only systems that have not renewed their agreement to carry WCVB. A week ago, the list was much longer with Metrocast, Shrewsbury Electric and Cable, Beld/Braintree Electric, Agrent Communications and Southern Vermont Cable. RCN serves a significant number of communities in metro Boston including communities such as Arlington, Framingham, Newtown, Stoneham, Waltham, Woburn and significant parts of the city of Boston. As WCVB carries popular programs such as Dancing with the Stars, Desperate Housewives and the most popular local newscast in the Boston area, the outage will not go unnoticed.

On the surface it would appear that this is a simple disagreement between the two parties over retransmission fees. Local broadcast stations can either demand to be retransmitted on a cable system under the FCC’s “must-carry” provision or through an agreement where the cable provider pays the local station. If a local station exercises the “must-carry” option they cannot demand payment from the cable or satellite provider. Otherwise, the cable company and local station can agree on a fee for retransmitting of the signal (source: FCC.gov). Any station that’s an affiliate of the major networks would naturally look for retransmission fees given the popularity of their programming.

If this was just a dispute over retransmission fees between two parties, it would have been solved by now. In fact, it’s a lot more complicated than that. TVNewsCheck does a great job explaining some of the forces at work here. To summarize: The major networks demand a cut of the retransmission fees from local affiliates like WCVB since they supply them with most of their prime-time programming. On the other side, cable operators face pressure from the rising cost of channels such as ESPN. You’re paying for those high-priced contracts to carry NFL games. 

The web gets even more tangled when you consider this: Hearst owns WCVB which is also an ABC affiliate. ESPN is owned by Disney – ABC but Hearst also has a significant ownership position in ESPN. Therfore, both Hearst and Disney benefit from retransmission fees of both ESPN and WCVB. Perhaps that’s the sore spot in the negotiations? 
So what happens if no agreement is reached? Consumers have a few options such as receiving WCVB with an antenna or switching to another cable or satellite provider. Another possiblity would be to use a combination of Hulu to see ABC network programming and WCVB’s web site, the Boston channel to watch local news.

Typically, these disuputes get worked out in the eleventh hour. Hearst and RCN did not provide any comment on this story. While Hearst has made customers aware of the situation, the tone has been factual. It’s not like the recent public battle between DirecTV and Fox that turned nasty

If it’s not resolved, it’s bad for both parties. For cable, they could lose customers to satellite, antenna or Internet video. Short-term for WCVB, they would lose viewers which means less advertising dollars. For consumers, disruptions like this one makes them realize there’s other ways to get their favorite shows and news. 

Tags: cable, FCC, Hearst, lineup, WCVB

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