Wednesday, November 14 – City Council Briefed On Cable Changes

OCEAN CITY – Many people have noticed a blue screen in place of their favorite syndicated shows lately, which has proven to be a direct result of local stations cashing in on their exclusivity rights.

Tom Worley, Area Director of Government Relations and Public Affairs for Comcast, appeared at a work session of the Mayor and Council this week after the City Council requested that he clarify the recent changes.

Worley explained that since Oct. 25, certain channels in the Ocean City area have been blocked. The blue screens that have replaced several shows are a direct result of local stations’ requests for exclusivity rights.

Worley explained that federal law gives the local stations, WBOC, WMDT, Fox 21, and the CW, exclusivity rights to a destination marketing area. As a result, any program that is duplicated by an outside station can be blocked if the local station chooses to act on those exclusivity rights.

WMDT acted on its exclusivity rights several years ago, blocking out WBAL as a result. More recently, WBOC and Fox 21, enacted their exclusivity rights, also calling for the blocking of duplicated shows, such as Oprah and Seinfeld, among others.

According to Worley, there are two types of programming that can be blocked under the federal law. Duplicated Fox programming during the prime time hours of 7-11 p.m. that is shown on both Fox 21 and WTTG can be blocked so that the programming can only be viewed locally through Fox 21.

The same can occur with syndicated programming, which typically occurs outside of the prime time hours. For example, WBOC purchases Oprah through syndication, but so does WBAL. As a result Oprah can be seen on two different channels, inevitably resulting in competition for WBOC.

“They have a right to block those and they do that for business reasons,” Worley said.

Worley explained that Fox 21 originally requested for WTTG to be moved to channel 95. When that did not solve the problem, it was requested that any Fox programs shown at the same time be overlaid, so that the same programming is shown on both channels, but with Fox 21 commercials.

Syndicated programming shown on different channels proved more challenging, however, because the programs were coming on at different times, eliminating the overlay option. Instead, blue screens are put up with messages, essentially forcing local viewers to watch syndicated shows, such as Oprah, on WBOC only.

Councilman Jay Hancock voiced concerns that the Baltimore and DC stations may eventually be removed completely, an outcome that he feels would have a negative impact on the local area.

“I think it would hurt our environment significantly,” he said.

When asked about the response from the Ocean City cable market, Worley said that he had received calls about the changes. He explained that the majority of the complaints have been from people whose work schedule doesn’t permit them to watch their shows at the limited times that are now available.

“It’s important to remember that in all of that programming, nothing’s been removed,” he said, explaining that all of the programs available before are still available, just at different times.

Worley maintained that despite dissatisfaction from some members of the local cable market, it is federal law, a law that was established to protect local stations.

To read all the week’s news, see The Dispatch and its online counterpart on Friday.