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Breezeline removes WBOC from rural cable systems in Maryland

Station is designated as an out-of-market CBS affiliate, giving it little recourse to demand carriage in affected areas.

Station is designated as an out-of-market CBS affiliate, giving it little recourse to demand carriage in affected areas.

Abandoned stores in Salisbury, Maryland. (Photo by Eric Fischer via Wikimedia Commons)
Abandoned stores in Salisbury, Maryland. (Photo by Eric Fischer via Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly 10,000 cable television subscribers in rural Maryland are without access to a nearby CBS affiliate after the local cable provider decided to drop the station earlier this month.

The move came after a carriage agreement between Salisbury-based WBOC (Channel 16) and Cogeco-owned Breezeline came to an end on December 31 of last year without a new agreement in place.

It was the cable company’s decision not to renew its carriage of WBOC, according to officials with the holding trust company that owns the television station.

The decision affects around 9,400 cable television customers along the Delmarva Peninsula, an area comprising suburban and rural communities primarily in Delaware and Maryland.

In a statement posted on its website, WBOC said it was informed by Breezeline that the cable company was choosing to only carry in-market television stations, or ones that are licensed to the communities where it operates.

In this case, Breezeline will offer cable customers CBS programming from WJZ-TV (Channel 13), which broadcasts from Baltimore and is the designated in-market CBS programming provider for many of the cities where Breezeline offers cable TV service.

“WBOC desires Breezeline reinstate our station for viewers here on Delmarva in areas like Grasonville, Kent Island, Chestertown, Centreville, Queenstown, Rock Hall, Church Hill, St. Michaels and Chesapeake City, who rely on our local news, weather and programming,” WBOC wrote in a statement on its website. “Please understand this is not a carriage dispute. Breezeline stated it dropped WBOC because we are an out-of-market station to the communities they serve, which are in the Baltimore viewing area as defined by Nielsen Media Research.”

For decades, carriage of out-of-market television stations was common on emerging cable systems, primarily among independent stations that offered differentiated programming across communities. Some cable systems also carried more than one major broadcast network affiliate in communities that were on the periphery of a secondary television market, usually a large city like Los Angeles, Chicago or San Francisco.

Out-of-market carriage of TV stations helped cable providers offer more and differentiated programming, including sports telecasts that were sometimes offered exclusively to local TV broadcasters. Some stations like WTCG (Channel 17, later WTBS and now WPCH) in Atlanta, WGN-TV (Channel 9) in Chicago and WOR-TV (Channel 9, now WWOR-TV) in New York City actively sought out-of-market carriage on cable and satellite systems, building their operations into so-called “superstations” and helping them scale up their advertising business by marketing their stations as available from coast to coast.

Over the years, cable companies have reduced their carriage of out-of-market stations, in part because of higher fees charged by station owners to cable companies for the rights to redistribute their signals. Evolving federal regulation has also allowed local stations to impose market exclusivity on their network and syndicated programming, which forces cable companies to drop local channels from nearby markets if an in-market station chooses to exercise that right.

Current federal regulations allow local television stations to demand fees from a cable or satellite operator in exchange for the rights to offer their stations to subscribers, or elect for “must carry” status, which forces a cable company to distribute a local TV station, but also requires the station to forego any fees associated with that carriage.

But there are no federal regulations in place for carriage of out-of-market stations on cable TV platforms, meaning the decision to offer a local station from another market is entirely up to the cable provider and requires an agreement with any such station. The rules are slightly different for satellite TV companies, which may carry an out-of-market station on its platform if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designates the station as “significantly viewed” within a certain region.

Even if that satellite TV rule was imposed on cable platforms, it still wouldn’t apply in this case, according to a spokesperson for Breezeline, who told a local newspaper that the cable company felt WBOC was not a significantly viewed station.

“We understand the disappointment that some Grasonville customers feel about WBOC,” a spokesperson for Breezeline said, referring to one community that previously received the station on its cable platform. “Yet, all Breezeline TV viewers would have been burdened with the cost of both channels when the content on WBOC substantially duplicates that found on WJZ. In addition, local content on WBOC can be accessed on their website for free.”

While WBOC has no legal right to be distributed on Breezeline systems that fall within the Baltimore television market, not all hope is lost for the station: As it turns out, WBOC and Breezeline have been in this situation once before.

Ten years ago, Breezeline — then operating as Atlantic Broadband — removed WBOC from its systems in many of the same areas, prompting a flood of complaints from cable subscribers. The decision was reversed just a few weeks later.

But with cable and satellite costs skyrocketing as broadcasters demand more money for their channels, the situation involving Breezeline and WBOC could be permanent if the station is demanding fees that the cable operator feels are unjustified.

Meanwhile, cable subscribers who live in areas affected by the situation have little alternatives to get WBOC. The station streams its local newscasts online, but the channel is otherwise not available on Paramount Plus or cable-like streaming services in Breezeline areas, which also opt for carrying WJZ-TV.


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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).