News

Ameritech Swings at Cable Over Cubs

2/08/1998 7:00 PM Eastern

The Chicago Cubs haven't won the World Series in 90
years, yet access to the team's games is the focal point of a major Windy City battle
that could have far-reaching implications on the future of programming-access rules.

Ameritech Corp. last week cried foul in Washington, D.C.,
over programming-exclusivity rules, after Tribune Co.'s WGN-TV announced that it will
move 47 of its Cubs Major League Baseball telecasts to its own microwave-distributed,
cable-exclusive ChicagoLand TV. In part, Tribune is making room for programming from the
WB network.

Meanwhile, some cable operators are concerned that the loss
of popular Cubs games from the WGN superstation feed will devalue the service, although
WGN executives maintained that the network's programming will remain strong, with
some 200 games from local sports teams.

Tribune's move was a major part of Ameritech's
plea to Congress last Tuesday to close loopholes in the law governing access to cable TV
programming. Tribune -- by offering CLTV via microwave, rather than by satellite -- avoids
the programming-access rules outlined in the 1992 Cable Act, which force companies to
provide programming to alternative technologies, such as direct-broadcast satellite
systems and telco-owned cable operators.

CLTV, which has 1.6 million subscribers, is contractually
bound to offer its programming exclusively to operators. Barbara Weeks, the regional
service's vice president and general manager, would not comment on the particulars of
the contract, but she did say that the Cubs deal will enhance the service's
awareness.

'The Cubs are so important to Chicago, so it
couldn't be better for us,' she said.

But Deborah Lenart, president of Ameritech's video
arm, Ameritech New Media, argued that such rules prohibit fair competition in markets like
Chicago.

'That is a cable-satellite network that is not
currently available to Ameritech on competitive rates and conditions,' she said at a
press conference in Washington. 'We are asking Congress to act on this
urgently.'

While the programming-access rules sunset in the year 2002,
there's no guarantee that the Federal Communications Commission won't extend the
provision. There are also moves afoot in Congress to expand the law's provisions as
an alternative to freezing cable rates.

Nevertheless, the move is a boon to Chicago-area cable
operators, which will have the Cubs exclusively -- along with the service's local
news -- via CLTV.

'What's not to like about the deal?' asked
one top 10 MSO executive who oversees a system in the Chicago area. 'Anytime we can
gain an advantage over our competitors, it's good for cable.'

'There is a definite competitive advantage to have
some programming exclusively from CLTV,' said Michael Woods, vice president of
marketing for Prime Cable's 136,000-subscriber system in the area.

Peter Walker, vice president and general manager for WGN,
said the network did not make the move to aid operators. Instead, the station needed to
find room for additional programming from the fledgling WB broadcast network.

'[Ameritech's argument] sounds like a great
conspiracy theory, but we're not conspiring against anybody here,' Walker said.
'For years, we carried a full complement of Cubs games, but we've recently
picked up other franchises. It's a tough decision, but we still carry more than
anyone else.'

Indeed, WGN still telecasts more local baseball games than
any other station. Along with 92 Cubs games, the station will also carry 52 Chicago White
Sox games. Only TBS Superstation comes close, with 90 Atlanta Braves games.

In addition to baseball, WGN carries 15 Chicago Bulls
National Basketball Association games.

But while local operators are lauding the deal, affiliates
of WGN's superstation feed are worried that the move will devalue WGN.

'The loss is of concern to us, but we're not
going to make a knee-jerk reaction and drop the channel,' said Skip Harris, vice
president of marketing for Falcon Cable TV Corp. 'Our hope is that they'll get
the games back or provide a suitable replacement.'

Yet despite the loss of Cubs games, Derk Tenzythoff, vice
president of programming services for UVTV, which uplinks WGN for superstation
distribution, said WGN still offers a significant amount of quality sports and
entertainment programming.

'Whenever you lose some sports, there are always some
people who will be upset, but because we have so much baseball, we really feel that it
won't affect us that much,' Tenzythoff said. 'Between the movies and
sports, we're pretty well-rounded.'

Another concern from operators is the duplication of the WB
product. Sources close to the situation said Warner Bros. insisted on not including local
exclusivity in its affiliate contracts so that WGN could provide exposure to its program
across the country. But with the network's recent growth, operators are complaining
more about duplication of such popular shows as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Dawson's
Creek
.

Tenzythoff said UVTV is considering replacing WB
programming with a mix of movies and other programming to eliminate the duplication
problem.

Ted Hearn contributed to this story.

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