Alongside its retransmission dispute with Sinclair, Time Warner Cable is battling it out with Smith Media in the Utica NY and Burlington VT-Plattsburgh NY DMAs, and has taken the extraordinary step of pulling out-of-market stations in to replace Smith’s. Nexstar, owner of some of the imports, is protesting to the FCC, and the mayor of Utica is considering replacing TWC with another provider when its franchising contract runs out.
The Smith/TWC contracts in Utica and Burlington-Plattsburgh expired 12/15/10.
In some communities in Utica, Smith’s NBC WKTV-TV has been replaced by Nexstar’s WBRE-TV Wilkes-Barre/Scranton PA. Ironically, Nexstar is already operating in Utica with Fox WFXV and also has an SSA with Mission Broadcasting’s ABC WUTR-TV.
In Burlington-Plattsburgh, Smith’s ABC WVNY-TV has been replaced, ironically, with WUTR, and Smith’s Fox/CW WFFF-TV has been replaced with a Watertown Class A, WNYF-CA, owned by United Communications Corporation.
According to a WKTV report, David Roefaro, the mayor of Utica, said that TWC’s decision to import programming from Pennsylvania is confusing his constituents. For example, he received a call about flooding in Utica. There was no flooding – that was a local story in Wilkes-Barre.
Roefaro noted that the Smith/TWC contract wasn’t the only one up for renewal – it’s time for TWC to renew its contract with Utica, and Roefaro said that is not a given.
He has joined with a state senator, a county executive and Utica assemblywoman in complaining to the FCC.
In a letter, they said the dispute affects about 70% of local residents, and called it a serious problem for state officials who are prevented from disseminating emergency information, news of school or road closings and other matters of importance.
The Nexstar complaint notes that it was given insufficient notice of the use of its signals in distant markets, and says that TWC subscribers were also insufficiently notified. It said that Smith should be allowed to claim network non-duplication protection in both affected markets, forcing TWC back to the negotiating table. It also noted that bringing in distant signals was not a service to TWC subscribers – it noted that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is 130 miles from Utica, and Utica is 140 miles from Burlington-Plattsburgh.
TWC used its Roll Over or Get Tough website to claim that Smith was denying carriage, and said, “Smith Media is demanding huge increases in the fees we pay for their programming…even while they offer it over the air and online for free!” It noted that it had “made special arrangements” to bring in the imported signals.
Smith said it had offered TWC a fair deal and has no idea why TWC is refusing to accept the offer. It said it is available on a number of other platforms, including Dish Network, DirecTV other cable systems (it mentioned Charter by name) and is of course available free over the air.
RBR-TVBR observation: In its decision to play hardball with broadcasters, TWC is only underscoring why carriage of local broadcast stations is so important. Add to that the questionable tactics that they are employing in the Smith dispute and it’s hard to see that they are doing their colleagues in the cable business any favors.
People need access to a diverse selection of local video news services – programming broadcasters provide in service of the public interest. Cable operators have no such obligation, and even when they do provide a local news service, it is just one, failing to provide the diversity and competition that go along with the localism plank that are pillars of the public interest obligation.
MVPDs want this case tried in the halls of Congress and corridors of the FCC. Broadcasters may well relish that challenge, and can call as their first witness Mayor David Roefaro of Utica NY and the many local elected officials who have joined him in fighting for the rights of their constituents.