Midstate TV landscape facing changes

Regular TV viewers may have noticed commercials the past few weeks alerting them to the possibility that the Fox television network may not air on their cable system after Dec. 31.

That’s because local Fox affiliate WGXA-24 has yet to finalize new contracts with various Middle Georgia cable companies, including Cox Communications. TV viewers with satellite service wouldn’t be affected.

Keith True, general manager of WGXA, said his station is in the process of negotiating new contracts with most of the Middle Georgia cable providers, and he’s hopeful that deals will be in place by the end of the year when the current contracts expire.

“We’re negotiating with all of them, and with the majority of them, we have tentative deals,” he said. “There are a couple we may not work out deals with.”

True said the station is seeking cash compensation for carrying Fox programming in Middle Georgia. WGXA is the exclusive provider for Fox programming in the midstate, which includes such popular shows as “American Idol,” “24” and “House.”

Mary Huff, community relations manager for Cox Communications, said she also is confident an agreement will be reached by the cutoff date.

“We’re optimistic we can reach an agreement before Jan. 1,” she said. In a worst-case scenario, Fox programming would not be aired on any cable provider that does not reach an agreement with WGXA.

Regardless of the negotiations, Cox still will carry Fox’s high-definition signal, which is carried on Channel 702 on Cox’s HD package. That contract isn’t set to expire until the end of 2009, Huff said.

Meanwhile, WPGA-58, Macon’s ABC affiliate, is in the exact opposite situation as WGXA. Station owner Lowell Register said negotiations between WPGA and Cox have stalled over carrying that station’s HD signal on Channel 706 between Jan. 1 and Feb. 17, though Cox will continue to carry the regular digital cable signal on Channel 6.

“We’re in an unusual position where we don’t have an agreement with (Cox),” Register said.

People who receive their TV signals through an antenna rather than a cable or satellite provider will be able to pick up both WGXA and WPGA but only until Feb. 17.

That’s when new federal regulations go into effect that eliminate analog signals — the type picked up by antennas.

After that date, people using an antenna will need a converter box. However, cable and satellite customers don’t have to worry about making that switch.

Register said under FCC regulations, the cable company can continue to run WPGA’s analog signal to carry ABC programming such as “Lost” or “Desperate Housewives,” but it won’t be carrying the high-definition signal for that six-week period.

Huff said beginning Feb. 18, Cox has the “right and obligation by law” to run the HD signal again.

She said Cox is exploring other options about what to air on Channel 706 during the six-week period if an agreement isn’t reached.

Register said his TV and radio stations will begin running ads this week, urging viewers to switch to DIRECTV satellite service in order to continue to receive HD programming after Jan. 1.

Huff said Cox still will carry WPGA on its regular digital service through 2011, when the current contract runs out. She said she isn’t certain what will happen with the station’s HD signal, but she said the cable company will urge viewers to continue to watch on Cox Channel 6.

Register said Cox wants to sign a six-year contract for the HD signal, and he only wants a three-year deal.

“They wanted to do a six-year agreement, which is way out there as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I’m only interested in the next three years. If (Cox) wants to make a deal, I’m willing to do so, but I’m also willing to drive their customers to DIRECTV. It is about compensation, and they’ve basically refused to give us anything.”

Huff said Cox’s policy is not to reveal details about its contract negotiations.

“With regards to WPGA’s contractual details, Cox does not make a practice of negotiating business deals in public,” she said. “As with all negotiations, however, Cox is trying to reach a fair agreement that is beneficial to both parties and our customers. First and foremost, Cox is seeking to protect the value of cable television for our customers.”

Huff said Cox also is making a change to its local programming on Channel 15. All of the locally produced programming on that channel will cease at the end of the month because maintaining it wasn’t cost-effective.

“We’re ending the local shows,” she said. “The viewership was extremely low, and we were not getting the ad support we needed. It just didn’t make sense to continue.”

Huff said a decision has yet to be made about what will be shown on Channel 15. One thing that will remain the same for Channel 15 in 2009 is the continued airing of Peachtree TV, which carries Atlanta Braves games.