A 10-year-old local news operation, faced with what it called a six-fold rate increase to lease a local channel from Adelphia Communications Corp., is fighting bankruptcy with bankruptcy.
The Martinsville, Va., channel, called Channel 18, is also urging consumers (via saveourlocalstation.org) to contact EchoStar Communications Corp., hoping Dish Network will consider carrying it.
Charles Roark, operator of Media 6 Inc., said Adelphia gave notice in December that lease rates would rise to $8,000 to $9,000 per month — even though the channel, available to 22,000 local cable customers, had a contract through 2010.
Media 6 responded by filing a Chapter 11 petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Lynchburg, Va., hoping to avert the increase. Adelphia is currently reorganizing under Chapter 11, and has asserted the right to void what it called an undervalued contract, according to Roark.
Adelphia spokeswoman Erica Stull described the dispute as a legal matter and declined to comment.
The news operation leases Channel 18 from Adelphia and fills the slot, all day, with news and locally produced religious and community programming, selling ads to generate revenue.
The community, about 45 minutes from Roanoke, does not have a local broadcast station, according to Roark. Channel 18 has always leased space on cable, operating its own cameras and other equipment.
Channel 18, naturally, reported its own bankruptcy filing story on the air. But so far, there has been no fall-out from advertisers: contracts are structured so that businesses pay Channel 18 after their spots have run, so there is no reason to pull spots, Roark said.
Bankruptcy was seen as a better remedy than the one Roark said Adelphia suggested: raising ad rates. Unemployment in the community has been as high as 22% and businesses are just hanging on, so Channel 18 hasn't raised ad rates in four years, she said.
Matt Ashburn, who has been consulting the station, estimated 200 to 300 viewers have signed an online petition directed at Dish Network management. A Dish spokesman would not respond to inquiries about how many fans contacted the satellite-TV provider.
"Customers tell [Adelphia] over and over again" the channel has value, Roark said. "They just don't seem to get it."
Local officials speaking out for the channel include Henry County supervisor Debra Buchanan — but she could be biased. She's also the station's sales director and morning on-air personality.
Channel 18 had a financial squabble with Adelphia in 1999, which station supporters helped resolve.
One viewer ferreted out the unlisted number for Adelphia's then-chairman, John Rigas, and got other viewers to pepper him with calls, Roark said. Rigas intervened "and that's how we got our current contract."
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