Time Warner Cable denies carriage to South Carolina’s WBTW-TV

MSO Time Warner Cable has dropped WBTW-TV, the CBS affiliate serving South Carolina’s Grand Strand area, from its channel lineup in certain markets. The station’s outraged owner has retaliated by filing an emergency enforcement complaint with the FCC.

Time Warner dropped the station, licensed to Florence, SC, on Aug. 11 from systems serving Georgetown, SC. By the end of September, the cable operator plans to drop the station from the South Carolina communities of Johnsonville, Effingham, Murrells Inlet, and Pawleys Island, as well as Richmond and Brunswick counties in North Carolina.

Time Warner said it dropped WBTW because it is an out-of-market station providing duplicative programming. The cable system will continue to carry WCSC-TV, the Charleston, SC, CBS affiliate. Nielsen Media Research considers WCSC the in-market station for the areas where Time Warner is pulling WBTW.

“By removing the station we’re able to provide more programming options in the future to our customers,” said Time Warner spokeswoman Melissa Buscher. “It will include faster broadband and more HD services and that’s what out customers have come to expect.”

Time Warner replaced WBTW’s programming with the Home Shopping Network and programming from the MyNetwork.

Media General doesn’t challenge Time Warner’s right to drop the station from its system, but alleges the cable operator didn’t follow FCC rules by providing sufficient notice to viewers.

The FCC requires cable operators to inform customers of any change in channel positions in writing at least 30 days in advance if the change “is within the control of the cable operator.” Written notice must also be provided to any TV station at least 30 days before dropping or repositioning a station.

In its complaint to the FCC, Media General said it first learned the station had been dropped by Time Warner when it received a flood of calls from “disenfranchised viewers.” WBTW said it received more than 1600 complaints from viewers in the first 96 hours after the change.

Time Warner said it provided ample notice. “We believe we complied with the law. We provided legal notice in several forms regarding the drop,” said Time Warner spokeswoman Maureen Huff, who said the company had provided newspaper notice 30 days in advance, as well as serving notice on its local system Web site.

Media General acknowledged that the cable operator did publish notice of the move in the July 7 and 8 legal notices sections for two local papers, and mailed a postcard to subscribers Aug. 6. However, it contended that was inadequate notice. More than 75 percent of its viewers don’t subscribe to the newspapers, the station owner argued.

After the controversy began, Time Warner Cable delayed dropping WBTW from other its systems, changing the planned turnoff from Aug. 20 to Sept. 22. That month-long delay, argued Time Warner, removes any question about future station deletions complying with FCC rules.

In its response to Media General’s FCC filing, an attorney for Time Warner denied there is any emergency or other reason for the FCC to act on the complaint.

“Notwithstanding any notices previously provided to Media General, TWC is writing at this time to inform the Commission that there are no plans to drop WBTW in any additional communities without providing 30 days’ notice to the Commission and to Media General,“ Arthur H. Harding, Time Warner’s attorney, wrote. “Thus, there is no need for the Commission to address the matters raised by Media General on an ‘emergency’ basis.’”

Historically, WBTW was a rating leader in news in the Myrtle Beach-Florence, SC, market, dominating its competition in both raw household ratings and key demographics. This was in part because the station essentially had the market to itself for over a quarter-century with its only real competition being signals from WECT-TV in Wilmington, NC, and WIS-TV in Columbia, SC.

In 2007, WBTW moved the majority of its operations from Florence to Myrtle Beach. A year later, the station launched its all-digital news operation, which included new graphics, news set, robotic studio cameras, and newscasts in 16:9 standard definition widescreen.

Then the economy went sour. Earlier this year Media General mandated furlough days as the company saw its stock values drop. Dozens of staffers at WBTW have recently been laid off.

The station now utilizes a majority of “one-man-band” reporter crews and cut its news photography staff to three. The station trimmed several news positions during the 2009 staff cuts and placed the engineering and production departments under supervision of the news director.