Low-power and powerless

UPN and Time Warner Cable are battling over distribution in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Syracuse, N.Y., where UPN has low-power TV affiliates—stations that aren't covered by must-carry regulations.

Although the cable company is not technically violating any rules, UPN executives charge that the top MSO is using its monopoly power to block a potential rival from competing in the local marketplace. "I can't understand what other explanation there could be," said UPN Chief Operating Officer Adam Ware.

Instead of giving a space on its basic-cable tier, like the rest of the over-the-air stations in the Cincinnati market receive, the cable giant has told UPN officials it wants a direct-affiliation agreement with the network, says Ware. That's not unlike the deals that The WB has made with some cable operators in the 100-plus TV markets. Otherwise, the cable company has said, it may import (at an estimated cost of more than $3 million a year) WSBK-TV Boston, the satellite-delivered superstation that is also a UPN affiliate. That way, Time Warner can get UPN programming without giving cable access to another local competitor.

Meanwhile, UPN's local Cincinnati affiliate, WBQC(TV), is devoting a big chunk of its Web site to what it calls "The War" with AOL Time Warner. The site urges viewers to call their congressman and demand a change in the must-carry laws to include low-power TV outlets that have secured network affiliations.

And UPN is pursuing a legal angle, as well: It's urging the FCC to authorize the granting of network-non-duplication rights to low-power stations. Currently, such rights apply only to full-power stations.

In other markets, UPN low-power stations have reached carriage deals with cable systems. In Las Vegas, for example, the UPN outlet has a deal with Cox Cable, which covers most of the market.

And, just last week, the UPN affiliate serving San Antonio, KBEJ-TV, made a carriage deal with Time Warner Cable to cover the adjacent market of Austin, Texas. KBEJ is managed by Belo, which has an existing agreement to jointly operate a couple of regional news networks in Texas with Time Warner.

"We're not sure why Time Warner won't reasonably have a conversation with our affiliates in Cincinnati and Syracuse," says Ware.

Virgil Reed, general manager of Time Warner's Cincinnati system, claims the allegation that the cable system is trying to shut out a local competitor is "just nonsense." The issue is channel capacity, he stresses.

"We'd love to have UPN," Reed says, adding, however, "We do not have a full-time channel available" on the basic tier, where the other broadcast outlets are located.

Reed says he has offered to take just the UPN programming and put it on an unused portion of a channel designated for educational use. He also says he has offered a leased-access channel (at more than $1 million a year, according to UPN). "They keep insisting on something that's not possible," he says. "They refuse to believe it's a capacity issue. I can't help that."

In Syracuse, the cable company has already decided to import WSBK-TV. Its executives in the market say they did so after trying unsuccessfully for six months to come to terms with UPN on a direct-affiliation deal.