Time Warner Cable subscribers in central and southern Maine who want to watch shows on ABC might want to start looking for alternatives.
Time Warner said Wednesday that it will not be able to provide ABC programming to most of its subscribers in Maine during a contract dispute with Hearst Television, owner of Portland’s ABC affiliate, WMTW (Channel 8).
The dispute, about how much Time Warner must pay Hearst for the rights to air its stations, led Time Warner to black out WMTW’s signal as of Tuesday.
In the affected areas, Time Warner subscribers saw a blank screen and a small message where they normally see WMTW programming. The blackout will continue until the dispute is settled.
A statement on the Time Warner website Tuesday said subscribers would be able to watch “national network programming” during the blackout from WUTR, an ABC affiliate in Utica, N.Y.
On Wednesday, however, Portland-based Time Warner spokesman Andrew Russell said Time Warner will be able to “import” programming from WUTR to subscribers in only a few southern York County towns, including Wells, York, Ogunquit and North Berwick. The rest of the subscribers in central and southern Maine will not get ABC programming during the dispute.
Russell said rules prevent Time Warner from airing the Utica station’s ABC programming to all subscribers affected by the WMTW blackout. He would not say whose rules those are, or exactly what they are.
“We exhausted every option, but the rules that govern importing stations prevent us from bringing in an ABC affiliate (beyond southern York County),” Russell said.
In the past two years, more than 40 similar corporate disputes have led to station blackouts on cable or satellite systems across the country, ranging from a day to six months.
The Federal Communications Commission has no rules preventing a cable operator from “importing a distant station,” said Janice Wise of the FCC’s Media Bureau. She said no entity besides the FCC has jurisdiction to govern the “importation” of distant signals.
Wise said the FCC would not get involved in a dispute such as the one involving Time Warner and Hearst unless one of the parties filed a complaint alleging the other had failed to negotiate in good faith.
The dispute between Hearst and Time Warner began earlier this year, when the two sides began negotiating a renewal of the agreement that governs how much Time Warner pays to carry Hearst stations around the country.
The agreement was extended once, but the extension expired at the end of Monday.
Mainers without cable access to WMTW can watch ABC shows online, at abc.com. Also, on Tuesday, WMTW began streaming its local news shows on WMTW.com, said Dave Abel, the station’s president and general manager. People also can watch WMTW over the air, using an antenna.
Abel issued a news release Wednesday responding to claims that Time Warner made about the dispute Tuesday. He said Time Warner’s claim that Hearst is asking for a 300 percent increase in payments is inaccurate.
When asked for more details, Abel said the statement was “not so much inaccurate” as misleading. He would not say how much of an increase Hearst is seeking, but called it reasonable and in line with what other cable operators pay for the rights to air Hearst stations.
“When they say 300 percent, it’s all relative to the base. If you go from one penny to three pennies, that’s 300 percent,” Abel said.
While neither side will say how much Time Warner has paid Hearst in the past, firms that analyze the cable industry estimate that most companies that own local TV stations got less than 75 cents per subscriber from cable or satellite providers in 2011, while a major network like ESPN was getting about $4.76 per subscriber.
Abel would not say whether the fact that WMTW is not airing in Time Warner households is affecting advertising revenue. Russell said the dispute is not affecting Time Warner’s advertising revenue because the company does not sell ads on channels that carry local stations.
Even without Time Warner, Abel said, his station is reaching about 170,000 of the 400,000 households in the Portland-Auburn TV market, over the air or through satellite providers.
Russell would not say how many Time Warner subscribers are without WMTW. The company has a total of 360,000 subscribers in Maine, though not all get WMTW.