HOULTON, Maine — Town councilors were scratching their heads this week over a spate of complaints about the local cable company’s policy of blacking out some television shows on the WAGM channels.
Gordon Wark, president and general manager of Polaris Cable Services, said Wednesday that the situation is nothing new.
The affiliated television station of Polaris Cable, which provides service to 14 communities, including Houlton, in Aroostook County and parts of Washington and Penobscot counties, is WAGM, which is in turn an affiliate of the CBS and Fox networks with the WAGM-TV CBS 8 (Channel 8) and WAGM-TV Fox 8 (Channel 9) stations.
At certain times of the day, Polaris subscribers can view the same show on both WAGM and on the local NBC (Channel 2) or ABC (Channel 7) affiliate.
In recent weeks, if a show playing on WAGM is also playing on the local NBC or ABC affiliate, then viewers see a blue screen with an accompanying statement on the competing station.
The screen states: “Syndicated programming that airs on this channel has been blacked out due to a request received by a local broadcaster in this market who also airs this programming. We are required to honor these official requests. To view this program, please tune to WAGM TV CBS 8 or WAGM TV Fox 8.”
The matter drew complaints and questions at the Town Council meeting Monday evening.
Houlton resident Phil Bernaiche said he had heard complaints and asked councilors “why you have to watch TV on other channels.”
Town Manager Doug Hazlett said he intended to talk to officials from Polaris about the issue. He said the town’s contract with Polaris was “silent” on the matter.
Other councilors also said they had heard complaints about the matter.
Wark said Wednesday that the blackout practice has been going on for “about 10 years.”
“This is an agreement between TV stations and cable carriers,” he said.
As part of the agreement, Wark said, Polaris has exclusive rights to syndicated programming in its market and has the right to block anyone else who is importing the same programming into its market.
Wark said that blacking out programs that appear on other stations at the same time they appear on WAGM draws a larger audience to WAGM.
“It is not like we are blacking out programs and not making them available to our viewers,” he said. “We are just blacking out programs that you could otherwise see at the same time on WAGM. We pay a lot of money for that programming and we want to protect our audience and draw viewers to WAGM.”
He insisted that the only thing new about the move is the blue screen with the statement on it.
“What we used to do is just black out the program so that you would just see a black screen,” he said. “But we were getting calls asking why it was happening, so we decided to use the blue screen with the explanation.”
Last week, however, Wark acknowledged that a mistake by a staffer led to the blackout of approximately 20 minutes of NBC’s afternoon coverage of the Winter Olympics. NBC has the sole rights to the Vancouver games, so Olympic action cannot be seen on other networks.