"Buckeye Fans" Miss Out on Bash

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

Here's What YOU Can Do to Help Make Sure It Doesn't Happen Again

On Saturday, Jan. 3, WBNS-TV aired a special preview of the upcoming Fiesta Bowl game in which the Ohio State Buckeyes will play Texas. This program apparently aired during the time in which WBNS usually shows "Wheel of Fortune." I say "apparently" because neither WTAP or Suddenlink Cable were informed of this change of programming by WBNS. As a result, many local Buckeye fans were not able to see this special program on Suddenlink Cable.

There is something YOU CAN DO to help prevent this from happening again.

More on that later. But first, a little history and some information about the way the FCC works.

Since WTAP is the station exclusively licensed to carry "Wheel" and several other so-called "syndicated" programs in Wood, Washington and Pleasants counties, we have invoked what is called "syndication exclusivity" ("syndex" for short) against any other out-of-market station that is not significantly viewed in our three county "market."

Neither WBNS or WSYX (another Columbus station) meets the FCC standard of being "significantly viewed" in our three local counties. Since these two stations do not meet that FCC standard, they are subject to syndex.

Under syndex, those other stations' versions of several specific programs are not allowed to be imported into this market via cable. Syndex is a right exercised by many TV stations across the U.S. against various out-of-maket stations. (I'm told that the Columbus TV stations invoke syndex against the Cleveland stations, to keep certain protected programs from being imported from Cleveland by Columbus area cable systems!) If huge stations like that can seek this kind of protection against each other, why shouldn't WTAP -- one of the smallest TV stations in the U.S. -- get the same sort of protection against stations much larger than us?

Why invoke syndex in the first place? Local stations pay tons of money for the exclusive right to air certain shows in their communities. And when those same programs are imported from a non-significantly viewed, out-of-market station, by a local cable company, it dilutes the value of that program to the local station and to the advertisers whose messages appear within it. It also happens to be a violation of the agreement between the local stations and the owners of the programs themselves.

More than five years ago, after doing a significant amount of research about the viewership of out-of-market stations and FCC rules, WTAP invoked syndex against WBNS and WSYX in all three local counties. We also invoked syndex and another FCC-sanctioned protection called "network non-duplication" against WSAZ-TV, the NBC affiliate in Charleston-Huntington, since it was not significantly viewed in Washington County, OH. (This was before Gray Television, the owner of WTAP, purchased WSAZ.) These rights had been invoked a number of years ago by WTAP but had been allowed to lapse over the years.

WTAP informed Suddenlink Cable and other cable companies about its desire to invoke these protections in 2002. Once they were provided with the proof that we were entitled to these protections, and with the list of programs and normal airtimes affected, the cable companies had to make it happen. Most cable companies do this via computers which they pre-set to the normal times that affected programs are to be blocked.

And that brings me back to the Buckeye Blitz.

The Suddenlink systems that are normally set to block "Wheel of Fortune" from airing on Suddenlink from WBNS, did their job on Saturday evening. The only problem was: WBNS wasn't showing its regularly-scheduled program. But Suddenlink's software had no way of knowing that.

WBNS is under no obligation to contact the many cable companies that carry its station, to let them know when it will be deviating from its normal schedule. Neither WTAP nor Suddenlink nor any other cable company has any built-in mechanism where they can be informed of such changes.

Whenever we are specifically notified by a viewer about an upcoming special program on any of these out-of-market stations, WTAP contacts the local cable companies and asks them to "lift" syndex for the period of time when that special program is being aired. Also, whenever WTAP does a special program (most often between 7-8pm on a weekday evening a few times a year) we "lift" syndex to allow local folks to watch "Wheel" and "Jeopardy" on those out-of-market stations.

In an ideal world, WBNS, WSYX and WSAZ would have someone on their staffs, to contact every cable company in the region when they plan to do something other than normal programming. Or Suddenlink would have a person on its staff to monitor all the programs on the various stations and invoke or "lift" these protections whenever there was a special program. Or, WTAP would have a person to monitor all of these various stations. But none of us has those people.

It is not the intent of WTAP to block anyone from seeing any special out-of-market program or any regularly-scheduled program on another station when we are doing something special. We are one of the few TV stations in the U.S. who go to the time and hassle of "lifting" syndex when we are informed of any special programming by a distant station. And we may be the ONLY TV station in America that "lifts" syndex" on other stations when WE are doing something special.

To the Buckeye fans, I apologize for the fact that no one told us about the Buckeye Blitz or we would have contacted Suddenlink to "lift" syndex.

If YOU are a Buckeye fan, I encourage you to contact me...directly...whenever you hear of a change in programming or a special program of any kind that's coming up on WBNS or WSYX that you're concerned might be blocked. Or if there's a special program coming up on WSAZ, contact me. We will do everything we can to contact the local cable companies and tell them to "lift syndex." That's all we can do. The rest will be up to the cable companies.

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