An article in Monday's Washington Business incorrectly identified the owners of WTTG-TV, Channel 5. The station is owned by Metromedia Inc.
Few cable companies in the Washington area are planning to drop local broadcast stations from their systems even though a federal rule that previously required them to carry such signals was repealed earlier this summer.
Many area systems have a large channel capacity, some of it unused, and thus have little incentive to drop the signals of local stations with small viewerships, cable operators noted. Some operators said their existing selection of channels satisfies community needs, and therefore no cuts are warranted. And most operators are waiting for the outcome of lobbying by broadcasters on Capitol Hill and possible Supreme Court review of this summer's decision before dropping any stations.
In July, a federal court struck down as unconstitutional the 20-year-old "must-carry" rule that was originally put into effect by the Federal Communications Commission to ensure cable systems did not preempt over-the-air television broadcasting.
The July ruling allows cable companies to drop little-watched channels and replace them with pay services or other programming that might attract more viewers. Cable companies now also have the option of charging customers to carry local broadcast signals.
The National Association of Broadcasters, however, has asked the Supreme Court to review the decision. The NAB also has lobbied Capitol Hill, where an amendment has been introduced to an FCC appropriations bill to require the agency to draft a new set of rules on the issue.
"The Supreme Court is still considering the appeal," said Wayne Hill, vice president of community relations for the national division of Warner Amex Cable Communications Inc., based in Columbus, Ohio. "It is still a somewhat murky area and the last has not been heard on the must-carry situation, so we are not taking any moves on any of our systems." Warner Amex owns Warner Amex of Reston, a 28-channel cable system serving 8,000 subscribers and carrying 15 local stations out of Washington, Baltimore and Virginia.
While systems with relatively few channels have more incentive to make room for new programming, larger systems in the Washington area have no plans to drop signals at all.
"We've got 120 channels, so if there is one thing we don't lack, its channel capacity," said Thomas D. Waldrop, chairman of the board at Media General Cable Co. of Fairfax. The company serves 73,000 subscribers with 80 active channels and carries 16 local Washington channels.
"The must-carry ruling won't have much impact on us one way or the other," he said. Systems that will have the most incentive to drop are smaller 12- to 20-channel systems, he said. These often were filled mostly with broadcast channels they were required to offer under the must-carry rules.
"We have said all along we didn't think we would see any wholesale dropping of channels," said Jim McElveen, spokesman for the National Cable Television Association. "The greatest activity would be where systems have all of their channel capacity taken, or where there are many duplicated broadcast stations or . . . operators finding some stations are not viewed as much as others."
Alexandria Cablevision, which serves 21,600 subscribers, has 37 channels, 14 of them taken by local stations. But it has no immediate plans to drop any stations, said Hy Triller, executive vice president of the company.
"We have a strong program complement," Triller said. "We have not thought about utilizing the must-carry channels."
Another relatively small, 35-channel cable system, Arlington Cable Partners, which provides Metrocable service to about 34,000 Arlington residents and carries 11 local stations, also has no plans to drop channels "in the forseeable future," said company president John Evans.
In the past, the company has sought to drop two public television stations, channels 53 and 56, but Evans said community input would be sought before any decision was made.
"If we decide that we are going to drop any signals, it will be only after the consumers and public-interest groups within the community share with us what their views are and what they want to watch," he said. "The consumer is paying the bill and what he wishes to see, we will provide."
Current market studies "indicate to us that what we are carrying right now is satisfying," Evans said.
But, even established independent stations with high ratings, such as Multimedia Inc. station WTTG-Channel 5, are not relaxing in the face of the relaxed rules.
"We are not nervous and we are not sitting pretty," said Bob O'Connor, the station's general manager. "We have to be concerned about the direction of the decision and in the future we feel . . . our type of television should be available to everyone."
"We would like to have seen it come out differently," he said.
Other broadcasters say privately they are concerned cable systems might sign up a local station on the basis of its sports or entertainment programming in any given season. Local stations that decide not to cover certain events, or lose the bid to do so in their area, may be out of luck, the broadcasters say.