One week after Time Warner Cable's western Ohio
division took control of Dayton-area cable customers from MediaOne Group Inc., the
operator also inherited a passionate public-relations drama last Monday, when hundreds of
local soap-opera fans lost access to ABC's General Hospital and One Life to
Until Aug. 8, Time Warner and predecessor MediaOne had
carried two ABC affiliates -- WCPO-TV in Cincinnati and WDTN-TV in Dayton.
But when Time Warner upheld a MediaOne agreement to drop
WCPO earlier this month, the soap operas were dropped, too. In their afternoon time slots,
WDTN runs talk shows TheMontel Williams Show and TheMaury Povich
The Time Warner/MediaOne system swap had been set to close
in September, but it was completed about one month ahead of schedule.
The timing was an unfortunate coincidence, according to
Time Warner western Ohio division president Jerry DeGrazia. "In some ways, Time
Warner Cable is being blamed for this," he said.
MediaOne agreed to drop WCPO at the request of both the
Cincinnati and Dayton ABC affiliates, which agreed to vacate each other's markets,
Cincinnati cable systems will remove the Dayton ABC
affiliate from their channel lineups in January, WCPO-TV general manager Bill Fee said.
The moves should increase local ratings for each of the stations, Fee added, because
out-of-market viewers are not included in those ratings.
WDTN-TV general manager David LaFrance said his station
asked to be moved from channel 2 to channel 9 on the Dayton cable system's lineup to
help combat "enormous reception problems."
DeGrazia explained that because the Dayton ABC affiliate
has such a strong off-air signal, it's almost impossible to shield a TV tuner from
interference when the station is carried "on channel" -- on cable channel 2 and
on channel 2 off-air.
Shopping channel QVC has taken over the channel-2 slot on
the Time Warner system. Because it's delivered by satellite, QVC does not pose
interference concerns, DeGrazia said. An additional public-access channel will take
QVC's former slot.
WDTN has contracts to run the talk shows in their specific
time slots for the next two years or so, and it cannot run the soap operas in their place.
LaFrance said he'd requested that the network allow WDTN to air the broadcasts
overnight on Fridays and Saturdays so local fans could tape them, but the network
ABC plans to launch a 24-hour soap-opera channel in
January, which would rebroadcast its top soap operas every night, but Time Warner has not
committed to carrying the new network.
"We are not planning any significant programming
changes in the Dayton area in the near future," DeGrazia said, adding that the
operator plans to begin a plant upgrade in mid-2000 that would open up channel capacity
over the next two to three years.
Like WCPO and WDTN, Time Warner has received numerous phone
calls from local soap-opera fans looking for shows that some have described as addictive.
The broadcasters suggested that Dayton cable customers use off-air antennas to access One
Life to Live or General Hospital from the Cincinnati stations.
"We've seen a major increase in local antenna
sales because local female viewers like to watch the soap operas that had been on channel
9," said Scott Siegel, president of local retailer Siegel Satellite Inc. He added
that some customers were "pretty upset" because they'd been getting
something free, and they now had to pay for antennas.
Siegel said that because most of his customers are urban
residents, they would not qualify for distant network signals over satellite, so he
hasn't recommended direct-broadcast satellite as an option for receiving the ABC
A spokesman for DirecTV Inc. said last week that it has had
talks with Disney/ABC Cable Networks about its soap-opera channel, but it has not yet made
a carriage decision. EchoStar Communications Corp. has not announced plans for the
A spokesman for EchoStar's Dish Network said Dayton is
not yet on the list of local broadcast markets the company plans to offer via satellite
once Congress passes favorable legislation, although Cincinnati is a possible candidate.
Dayton-area residents can receive distant network-broadcast
signals via satellite only if given waivers from their local broadcasters. LaFrance said
WDTN would not grant waivers to viewers who can receive the station's signal over the
air, adding, "We believe strongly in local franchises."
DeGrazia said WDTN's signal is so strong that in many
cases, residents don't even need off-air antennas to pick up its signal.
In addition to complaints about the loss of soap operas,
WCPO has received calls from people who miss the local news from Cincinnati because
it's a larger market.
That's not unlike satellite subscribers who signed up
for distant network signals over the years even though they were served by their local
affiliates. Some chose to pay extra for the distant broadcast feeds either to time-shift
programming, to watch news from another market or to view TV shows that their local
affiliates chose not to carry.
Earlier this year, many satellite customers who had been
receiving distant network signals illegally had those signals turned off.
Time Warner serves about 180,000 customers in the Dayton
area. DeGrazia said that while the operator is "very sensitive" to the effect
that the channel move will have on its customers, it decided that the better picture
quality would benefit a greater number of its subscribers.
Time Warner has not communicated the reasons for dropping
WCPO directly with its customers through newsletters, DeGrazia said, adding that it will
wait to see how widespread the reaction is.
"Any time you place a service on a cable system, that
service is going to gain a following," he said, admitting that some of the customer
calls in recent weeks had been emotional.