Television viewers still reeling from last month's sharp hikes in their cable bills and a reshuffled channel lineup had better fasten the seat beats on their couches. Another rude awakening may be in store Wednesday.
Some of their favorite channels may be missing.
Wednesday is the start date for the so-called retransmission-consent clause of the controversial 1992 cable law that Congress passed last year, which allows broadcast-TV stations to charge cable operators to carry their programs.
Until now, local cable operators have been able to carry the signals of KCBS-TV Channel 2, KNBC-TV Channel 4, KTLA-TV Channel 5, KABC-TV Channel 7, KCAL-TV Channel 9, KTTV-TV Channel 11 and KCOP-TV Channel 13 without permission or charge.
But if broadcasters and cable operators cannot reach agreement on terms of payment before 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the TV stations could withhold permission for their signal to be shown on cable. Some viewers might still be able to get the stations over their antennas, but others who require cable to get a good picture would be out of luck.
The approaching deadline produced a mad dash over the last few weeks between TV stations and cable operators across the country attempting to avoid interruption of programming. Several broadcasters and cable operators signed 11th-hour deals giving operators the right to carry broadcast signals in exchange for clearing channel space on their systems to launch new cable networks owned by ABC, NBC and Fox. (CBS opted not to charge a fee or ask for additional channel space for at least the next year.)
With one major exception involving KNBC, most local stations have come to terms with Southern California cable operators and do not expect any significant blackouts.
Elsewhere in the country, however, discussions and disagreements between broadcasters and operators have thrown the cable industry into "total upheaval," according to an official at a national cable advertising firm.
"There are so many things yet to be resolved, and it's going down to the wire," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "There's no point where things stand because a number of stations and systems are still working things out."
Hanging over the scramble is an undeniable bottom line, according to one national cable executive: "No one can win by a station just going to black. Cable operators lose subscribers and stations lose valuable ratings. Everyone should try to make the best of a compromise world."
The most heated dispute in the local area is between KNBC and Century Cable, which serves 210,000 subscribers in parts of West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.
Reed Manville, general manager of KNBC, said Monday, "We are offering them a deal that has been accepted by the vast majority of cable companies. But Century cannot continue to take my signal and sell it to their customers without an agreement with me."
Manville said Century would get KNBC's signal for free if it agreed to pay for the signals of two cable channels owned by parent NBC--business and talk channel CNBC and a forthcoming all-talk channel. He declined to specify the fee for the other two channels, but said it was far below rates being paid by operators for other basic cable stations, which he said were around 60 cents per subscriber per month.
Century Cable executives, on the other hand, accused KNBC of blackmailing viewers and demanding about $10 million in fees to Century and subscribers.
"We are able to work out an amicable relationship with everyone else besides KNBC," said Bill Rosendahl, Century's senior vice president. "What bothers me is that they're using our customers as hostages. They're playing a high-stakes strategy of blackmail."
The dispute erupted on the air over the weekend. KNBC ran commercials warning Century subscribers that they may stop receiving popular programs and sports events, and urged them to call the cable company. Century counterattacked by running a printed "crawl" over the KNBC spot that said, "Don't let KNBC deny you their signal," and told viewers to call the KNBC switchboard.
Meanwhile, other smaller cable companies also said they might have to stop carrying some channels because the price is too high.
Tom Robak, president of Apollo Cablevision, which serves 7,300 subscribers in Cerritos, said that he might have to drop KNBC and KTTV, a Fox affiliate.
"There's too much of an increase between the two of them," Robak said. "They want too much cash, and we don't have the capacity to guarantee coverage of their additional channels."