- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

More than 260,000 cable television subscribers in Northern Virginia will lose "Oprah," "Monday Night Football" and other popular shows if a regional cable operator and the local ABC affiliate don't settle a dispute this week.
The owner of WJLA-TV Channel 7 says it will cut its signal to Cox Communications Inc. subscribers if the companies cannot agree on the fee Cox must pay to carry the station.
Allbritton Communications Co., WJLA's owner, also wants Cox to continue to carry NewsChannel 8, Allbritton's 24-hour local cable news network.
Cox has more than 260,000 subscribers in Fairfax County, Fredericksburg and parts of Stafford and Spotsylvania counties.
The companies have a midnight Saturday deadline to reach an agreement. Negotiations began several months ago and continued yesterday afternoon.
If an agreement is not reached, Cox subscribers will lose WJLA and NewsChannel 8 on Sunday, Allbritton said. Depending on how long a blackout lasts, Cox subscribers could miss the St. Louis Rams play the Detroit Lions on WJLA Monday night, or Michael Jordan's return to basketball on NewsChannel 8 on Oct. 11.
"They are holding the viewers hostage," said Jerald Fritz, an Allbritton senior vice president. Allbritton began airing advertisements on WJLA Tuesday night that suggested viewers call Cox and urge the cable operator to sign a new agreement to carry the station.
A Cox spokesman said the company was hopeful an agreement could be reached before the deadline. He declined to comment further.
Allbritton locked up new deals to carry its stations with other local cable operators earlier this year. In August, the Washington area's largest cable operator, Comcast Cable Communications Inc., renewed its agreement to carry WJLA and NewsChannel 8 for at least the next 10 years.
Cox and Allbritton refused to discuss the sticking points in their negotiations. In a press statement late yesterday afternoon, Allbritton said it wanted Cox to pay the same fee that other operators paid to carry WJLA and NewsChannel 8.
"We have offered them a renewal agreement at the same rate that everyone else has accepted, guaranteed that no one will get a lower rate, and significantly reduced the rate of increases over the term of the agreement. All they have to do is sign it," said Frederick J. Ryan, Allbritton's president and chief operating officer.
The dispute comes at a critical time for Allbritton. The company reportedly is negotiating with "Good Morning America" news reader Antonio Mora to join WJLA as a local news anchor, part of its strategy to boost ratings by luring big-name personalities to the station.
Last week, Allbritton secured the rights to air some Washington Wizards basketball and Washington Capitals hockey games on NewsChannel 8. The network is scheduled to air Michael Jordan's first game as a Wizards player Oct. 11.
Blackouts are becoming more common in the cable-television industry.
Last year, Cox subscribers lost WTTG-TV Channel 5, the local Fox affiliate, for six days when similar negotiations between the two companies broke down. The companies refused to discuss how they resolved the matter.
Also, ABC pulled its programming from about 3.5 million Time Warner cable subscribers in New York, Los Angeles and other cities for almost two full days last year when negotiations over cable fees broke down.
Media companies run the risk of viewer backlash if stations go dark for long periods, said Robert J. Martin, a media analyst for Arlington brokerage Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc.
"If programming is pulled systemwide like it was during the ABC-Time Warner dispute, then you have issues," Mr. Martin said.

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