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New rules force cable to change

Though the programs won't change immediately and the monthly bill won't mention it, Thursday is an important day for area cable television customers.

That's the deadline for broadcast stations in Tampa, Orlando and Gainesville to make decisions that will greatly determine which markets their programs will be available in for the next three years.

Those decisions are the first official moves in a looming battle between broadcasters, who will soon be able to charge cable companies for their signals, and cable companies, who can then pick and choose which stations will be available in their systems.

What they decide may change the lineup of stations on your cable system and possibly increase the cost of monthly service.

On Thursday, the stations will decide if they want to charge the cable companies or declare themselves "must carry" stations. That means the cable company must carry them on their package of stations, but at no cost.

Between Thursday and October, there will be hardball negotiations between broadcasters seeking new sources of income and cable companies, which now enjoy free access to their signals.

The cable companies have until October to decide whether to take the stations, and on what terms. The decision will be in effect for three years.

Major broadcast stations around the country already have said they will seek fees for their signals. Locally, officials from network affiliates in Tampa have suggested they will seek fees from the cable companies.

Time Warner, the media giant that owns cable systems across the country, including CableVision in Citrus County, has said it won't pay the broadcasters.

Depending on the outcome of these negotiations, cable consumers in Citrus County could be the big losers. Major broadcast stations, such as channels 8, 10and 13 in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market, could withhold their product from cable systems.

Cable companies in areas such as Citrus, which is on the fringe of major markets in Orlando, Gainesville-Ocala and Tampa-St. Petersburg, could look at all three areas and create a lineup of "must carry" stations from different markets and pay for smaller stations to fill out its dial.

Either way, the prospect looms that the stations you're now used to seeing as you punch your remote control will drastically change by the fall.

"This has been compared to a big game of chicken," said Tom Meek, station operations director for WOFL-Ch. 35, an independent Orlando station.

He said if stations reach a deadlock "it would make the problem with the Orlando Magic look minuscule by comparison."

(Earlier this year, a dispute over compensation between the Sunshine Network and cable outfits led to a blackout of the sports channel to viewers in central Florida.)

Meek belives such deadlocks are a real possibility for cable markets, including those in Citrus County.

He said CableVision and Telesat in Citrus County may have an advantage over cable companies in the core markets of Orlando or Tampa because they can draw stations from those markets as well as Gainesville.

But area cable subscribers may get fewer stations if CableVision or its corporate ownership refuse to pay broadcasters' fees. And if they give in to the demands for payment, the cost could be passed on to consumers, meaning higher bills.

Under the new rules, the price that cable companies charge will be more closely regulated. According to industry experts, they will not be able to pass on increases wholesale to consumers immediately.

Because of the enormous financial stakes involved, officials at both cable systems and broadcast stations are reluctant to talk about this issue publicly.

"You can be sure it's not our intent to play this out in the media," said Dave Whittaker, president and general manger of WTVT-Ch. 13.

Whittaker said his station, which is the CBS affiliate in Tampa-St. Petersburg, already has decided whether to charge or go "must carry," but he refused to say what was decided. He hinted, however, that the station would opt for fees.

He also suggested that most larger broadcasters would seek payment.

Jim Major, vice president and general manager of WFTS-Ch. 28, said his station, the Fox network affiliate in Tampa, is "in the final stages" of formulating a plan. He declined to say which way the station would go but added "we think our signal is worth something."

Lynn Stepanian, programming director at WESH-Ch. 2, Orlando's NBC affiliate, also declined to say which way her station was going.

"Everyone is doing what's in their own best interest," said Stepanian. "All our markets are important to us. We want to be transmitted in all the markets we're in now."

Representatives for both CableVision and Telesat were unavailable for comment.

While possible wrangling over fees might force some stations off cable, stations that declare themselves "must carry" will be guaranteed access they didn't have before.

Stations in the Tampa market not currently carried by CableVision or Telesat include WTTA-Ch. 38 in Clearwater, and WCLF-Ch. 22 in Tampa. If they declare "must carry" status, the county's two systems likely would have to carry them since Tampa is considered the area's primary market.

Jennifer Beaver, program and operations manager for WTTA said her station will declare "must carry" status for the Tampa-St. Petersburg market.

She said WTTA, an independent, commercial station that has been on the air for two years, is trying to establish itself in a very competitive market. She said the new regulations are a boon to smaller, unestablished stations that have had trouble getting onto cable systems, who were under no requirement to carry them before.

She is not certain whether cable systems in Citrus County will be required to carry them, since technical factors such as signal strength also determine a station's status.

But in the next few months her station will be reviewing 30 or 40 cable systems in the region, including Citrus, to enforce the station's "must carry" status. She expects many systems not carrying WTTA will be required to soon.

Clyde Bowers, president and general manager of WACX-Ch. 51, said his station will declare "must carry" status in his market, the Orlando-Leesburg area. WACX is carried on both CableVision and Telesat.

He said his station, a non-profit station that offers religious programming, has been helped by the new regulations and has been added to several cable systems on the east coast. As a result, its viewership has risen to 400,000.

Since it is not in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market, Bowers was uncertain about his station's status in Citrus County.