Ops Seek Fox Substitute

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Small cable operators that used to carry Fox Net — a special feed with programming from News Corp.’s broadcast network — have been forced to find a new source for shows such as Prison Break and Vanished.

Fox Broadcasting Co. pulled the plug on Fox Net, which had been in operation for 15 years, Sept. 12, saying it was no longer economically viable.

Originally created as a source of Fox programming for cable systems in markets where the broadcaster didn’t have a local TV station, Fox Net was delivered via satellite as a standalone feed to its cable affiliates, many of them small rural systems with 1,000 subscribers or less.

REACH ELIMINATES NEED

When Fox Net debuted, Fox Broadcasting’s affiliates reached roughly 92% of the country. Today, the broadcaster’s affiliate group now has coverage in 98.97% of U.S. TV households, which essentially eliminated the need for the feed.

“The subscribers to Fox Net were dropping and dropping,” said Jon Hookstratten, executive vice president of Fox Network distribution, adding that it was a “very expensive” service to provide because it was satellite-delivered, like a standalone network.

At one time, Fox Net had cable affiliates representing almost 2 million homes, but its number has dwindled to only 6,500, according to Hookstratten.

Fox Net has been trying to assist its former cable affiliates in finding other sources for Fox’s programming.

“We just try to help people and guide them to the right place,” Hookstratten said. “We placed the cable systems and the local broadcasters together as best we could. Some of them, it was easy to connect them up. ... Some of them had never bothered to get hooked up with the local affiliate, and it ended up being relatively easy to do.”

As another option, Fox Net is also suggesting that its cable affiliates turn to The Media Group, formerly called Turner Media Group, to get their local Fox broadcast signals delivered via satellite.

“There is a fee involved with it, though, and it’s more than the local Fox Net fee was,” Hookstratten said.

If a cable company strikes a deal to carry a local broadcast station, but can’t get that signal clearly over the air, TMG can arrange to transport that signal to the cable system through an arrangement with EchoStar Communications, according to TMG spokesman Marc Lumpkin.

NewWave Communications in Sikeston, Mo., was among the cable operators that have turned to TMG, using it to get the signal of a Fox TV station that’s too far away to pick up over-the-air. NewWave has several systems with about 2,000 total subscribers that had been carrying Fox Net, and needed an alternative, according to director of programming Elaine Partridge.

“We went ahead and picked up the local stations, but unfortunately we had to pick them up through Turner [TMG],” she said. “And it’s going to end up costing us quite a bit more because we’re paying them quite a hefty fee.”

Lumpkin declined to comment on the specifics of TMG’s pricing.

Adams Telcom in Golden, Ill., had a system with about 400 subscribers, an acquisition it made earlier this year, that was a Fox Net affiliate, according to CEO Jim Broemmer.

“Our customer base was concerned about it [losing Fox programming],” he said. “We had calls come in here when they saw the crawl at the bottom of the screen [that Fox Net ran saying] that the feed was going away.”

Some of Adams Telcom’s cable systems were carrying a local Fox affiliate, WGEM in Quincy, Ill.

“We already had a relationship there, so we were able to move that over fairly easily [to the system that was losing Fox Net],” Broemmer said. “We just had to scramble on the timing.”

Adams Telcom didn’t learn of the Fox Net turnoff until four days before it happened, according to Broemmer, who attributed the late notice to a paperwork mix-up and confusion because his company had acquired the system in question this year.

LOCALISM AT A PRICE

Fox Net offered older shows such as Kojak, syndicated fare and infomercials during the day. In primetime, it aired shows from the Fox broadcast network, a popular lineup with hits such as 24 and American Idol.

Fox Net was originally supposed to go black Sept. 1, but Fox extended its life until Sept. 12 to give its cable affiliates more time to make other arrangements to get the programming, Hookstratten said.

Fox maintains that cable customers in former Fox Net markets will be better off, since if they get a nearby Fox station now they will have local news and local sports, which they didn’t have with the national feed.

“I guess the good news for our customers is now they’re gaining a local signal versus a national,” said Partridge. “The bad news for us is it’s going to cost us more.”

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