A money dispute means a local CBS-TV affiliate could be booted off the Charter Communications cable lineup after Dec. 31.
WKBT-TV in La Crosse posted a notice of the carriage dispute on its website Thursday. The CBS station is part of Morgan Murphy Media, that operates five TV stations, including WISC-TV in Madison. A similar notice of the dispute with Charter is also posted on the Madison station’s website.
The 1992 Cable Act gives television stations the option of either forcing a cable system to carry its signal, called must carry, or asking the cable system to pay a retransmission fee. TV stations increasingly are depending on fees charged to cable or satellite TV systems and passed onto consumers as a part of its revenue.
CBS airs NFL games and such popular programs as “Big Bang Theory” and “CSI.”
WKBT’s website says the dispute with Charter is about paying for the local station’s newscast: “Our local news operation is by far the largest single expense of the television station, as it should be. We provide many hours of local news each week. Again, our agreements with operators such as Charter support our ability to provide local news and other programming.”
However, WKBT’s newscasts primarily focus on the La Crosse area, not Chippewa County and its residents. The exceptions come during the weather report and the occasional time a La Crosse-area high school team plays a Chippewa County school.
Retransmission fees paid to some stations over the last four to five years have risen from 15 cents per cable or satellite subscriber to from 50 to 75 cents, according to www.allthingsd.com. That article says U.S. broadcasters are trying to push what are now $3 billion in retransmission fees to $12 billion.
WKBT’s website says Charter can reach a deal without raising rates to subscribers. And it says, “Our station is one of the most-watched channels in Charter’s lineup, yet Charter pays many times more money to national cable channels — none of which are watched as frequently as WKBT by a wide margin and and none of which produce important local news and public affairs programming or support a local payroll.”
The 1992 Cable Act also protects local stations from competition. That’s done through what’s called a Designated Marketing Area, or DMA.
WKBT says it is the CBS affiliate serving Chippewa, Eau Claire, Dunn, Rusk, Clark, La Crosse, Monroe, Vernon, Crawford, Jackson, Trempealeau and Buffalo counties in Wisconsin, and Winona and Houston counties in Minnesota.
That means if WKBT disappears from the cable lineup, Charter can’t replace it with an out-of-market CBS station such as WCCO-TV in the Twin Cities or WCBS-TV in New York.
Retransmission disputes usually are settled at a deadline or just after it passes. But there have been exceptions. A dispute between Time-Warner Cable and stations owned by CBS earlier this year took those stations off the air for weeks. And a dispute between Direct TV and the sports channel channel formerly called Versus (now the NBC Sports Network) lasted for months.
WKBT also handles the MyNetwork TV channel that’s carried by Charter. It’s not clear what will happen to that station on Charter if WKBT is no longer available.
If WKBT’s signal is bumped off the Charter lineup, Chippewa County residents can try to get the station’s signal with a digital antenna.
Satellite providers such as Direct TV and Dish Network are not involved in the dispute and will continue to air WKBT. Some CBS programs are also available through Internet outlets, such as YouTube.
The La Crosse station’s website urges its viewers to call Charter about the dispute. As for contacting WKBT, the station says: “While we appreciate your input and welcome your comments, it is not necessary to contact us after you have contacted Charter. If you wish to share your thoughts with us, you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.”