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Cabal TV: How Maine stations lose out

Whether or not you watch ESPN's SportsCenter at noon or its Chia Pet infomercial at three in the morning, 26 percent of your cable or satellite bill is dedicated to ESPN.
ESPN
Whether or not you watch ESPN's SportsCenter at noon or its Chia Pet infomercial at three in the morning, 26 percent of your cable or satellite bill is dedicated to ESPN.
Posted July 12, 2012, at 8:44 p.m.
Last modified July 13, 2012, at 8:12 a.m.

If Ben Franklin were alive today, he might be inclined to observe that in this world nothing can be certain except death, taxes and that message at the bottom of your television screen warning that this channel is about to go away because of a financial dispute with the cable operator.

Among the top three most annoying television-viewing experiences (right behind PAC-funded political attack ads and anything starring Snooki) is the seemingly monthly warning of a blackout of your favorite channel.

Recently, the CBS/CW affiliate in Bangor and the ABC affiliate in Portland have pulled their signal from, respectively, DirecTV and Time Warner cable because of disputes over retransmission fees. The disputes revolve around these local TV stations wanting to be compensated by the satellite and cable systems that carry (retransmit) their signals.

The argument is that for decades cable and satellite operators have paid ESPN, CNN, Fox Sports, TNT, TBS and the Knitting Channel (we can only wish) monthly per-subscriber fees that now range from an average of 1 cent per subscriber to ESPN’s industry-leading $4.69 per subscriber.

ESPN alone represents more than 26 percent of all cable fees.

In other words, whether or not you watch ESPN’s SportsCenter at noon or its Chia Pet infomercial at three in the morning, 26 percent of your cable or satellite bill is dedicated to ESPN.

Given that ESPN is available in approximately 100,000,000 television households, it pockets $469,000,000 every month, which translates to an annual total take that would make even Donald Trump blush: $5,628,000,000.

Granted, some of that money is used to pay for the ever-escalating fees for marquee sports events, but consider that ESPN also sells commercial time, so its annual gross is, well, gross.

For years, local television stations such as WMTW in Portland and WABI in Bangor made do by charging only for commercials, but in recent years they have coveted a piece of that tasty subscriber-fee pie that ESPN is hungrily devouring.

So the dances begin as the retransmission agreements expire.

WABI pulls its programming from DirecTV, WMTW (via its parent company, Hearst) yanks its signal from Time Warner, and the messages at the bottom of your TV screen commence.

For me it’s a wearying experience because I know that the impasse will be temporary.

I also know that the local broadcast stations have a more legitimate claim to cable subscriber fees than do, say, TLC, MTV, OWN, or the Disney Channel because WABI, WCSH, WGME, WLBZ, WMTW, and WVII not only carry a full array of network and syndicated entertainment, news, and sports programs, they also produce local newscasts, promote local events and charities, and employ local people.

Something else I know: my cable bill is no longer a good value.

I pay approximately $103 each month, which serves up a basic cable package, a measured-speed Internet connection and a DVR function.

The only channels I watch (the only channels I receive with this package, really) are the local affiliates and whatever else is thrown in to make it appear that I get more than I can from an antenna on my roof (but, truly, how many times can one watch Top Gear on BBC America?).

Sure, there’s a movie-rental feature, but the titles are limited and seem more expensive than what my Netflix subscription or Redbox can provide.

And while I, in effect, pay for ESPN, I can’t watch it because it’s not part of my selected tier of channels.

I once had the entire array of cable offerings: HBO, Cinemax, Comedy Central, TCM, Food Network, and Kardashian Klassic (or so I imagined), but I don’t miss any of them.

Primarily that’s because I can access much of that content online or via Netflix, but it’s also because I have come to realize that self-limiting my television options has allowed me more time to consume news from around the world via that World Wide Web contraption, read an actual book, read a virtual book, page through the latest issue of Cat Fancy, fill out the BDN’s crossword puzzle, paint a bedroom wall and learn the intricacies of microwave cooking.

Satellite providers and cable systems need to (as ESPN might term it) man-up and pay the local broadcasters for the value they deliver, and the local broadcasters need to stop crying wolf every time a re-transmission agreement hits the (temporary) skids.

Because, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, fish, visitors and that message at the bottom of your television screen warning that this channel is about to go away all stink after three days.

Towle Tompkins, director of sales and marketing for Bangor Daily News, has held management positions at the Outside Television network, WGME in Portland and WABI in Bangor.

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