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Wednesday, 22 November 2006 00:00

Local governments wade into Mediacom-Sinclair fray

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Several area governments are taking steps to keep constituents who subscribe to Mediacom cable service from losing the local ABC affiliate and with it their only source of local news.

 

Western North Carolina is in the middle of a nationwide contractual dispute between the cable provider and the broadcasting superpower, Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair has threatened to pull its stations from Mediacom cable systems — including the local ABC affiliate WLOS Channel 13 — unless Mediacom pays for the broadcaster’s services.

Mediacom has dubbed Sinclair’s request for compensation “exorbitant.” Sinclair in turn is encouraging cable subscribers to switch to a satellite system such as DirecTV or DISH Network, which both carry Channel 13.

The governments of Franklin and Sylva, and Macon and Jackson counties are contacting the parties involved in the dispute and encouraging them to reach a resolution with the customers’ interests in mind — keeping Channel 13 on Mediacom.

“For us this is really the only opportunity we have to have any kind of television coverage,” said Mike Decker, Franklin Town Manager.

Channel 13 is WNC’s only truly local news carrier. For demographic reasons, the “local” market is defined as Asheville-Greenville-Spartanburg. However, the stations out of Greenville and Spartanburg rarely cross state lines for their stories and have little to do with the WNC community aside from daily temperatures projected on the weather maps.

This disconnect with WNC is one reason why the Town of Sylva is urging the Federal Communications Commission to require Sinclair to grant Mediacom temporary consent to continue carrying Channel 13 until the dispute reaches a permanent settlement. The current agreement between the two companies ends Dec. 1.

“Our community depends on Mediacom for access not only to broadcast television for the programming but it is also the primary station for hazardous weather and emergency notification. WLOS is accessible through satellite reception but a large portion of our community does not have satellite service and depends upon WLOS for local news, weather, and emergency notifications,” reads a letter from Sylva Mayor Brenda Oliver to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

Jackson County Commissioners passed a resolution Monday night containing similar language and encouraging continued “good-faith” negotiations to achieve continued Channel 13 broadcasting on Mediacom systems.

If a resolution cannot be reached, Mediacom subscribers will simply have to do without ABC altogether. Federal law prevents the cable system from importing another ABC affiliate into the local market.

Losing the channel could lower the number of cable subscribers in local Mediacom service areas, as ABC is home to some of the most popular programming on television right now including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Neilson Media Research reports show that the number of cable subscribers market-wide is on the decline. Although cable allows for customers to package services such as television with Internet and phone, satellite systems generally provide a larger channel selection for a lower price. Cable companies have also not expanded their reach to remote mountain communities, meaning satellite is the only option for many mountain residents.

There are 22 stations in 12 states serving about 700,000 customers affected by Sinclair’s dispute with Mediacom. More than half the stations involved in the dispute are local news carriers.

Consequently, Mediacom appears willing to negotiate. On the company’s Web site “www.befairsinclair.com,” Mediacom says that the customers “will ultimately bear the cost and inconveniences” of whatever new agreement is reached.

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