Upstate N.Y. Station Could Lose 25 Percent of Audience Due to Canada Transition

How important is satellite carriage of local stations in small markets?

WWNY-TV (Carthage, N.Y., DMA 178) told the FCC it may not be able to replicate its analog service until 2011, due to DTV transition plans across the border in Canada.

That means that for two years after the February 2009 end of full-power analog broadcasting stateside, 75,000 of the station’s viewers—more than 25 percent of its current analog audience—would lose the signal.

(Read more about DTV issues along the Mexican and Canadian borders in the Feb. 20 issue of TV Technology)

The comments of WWNY’s owner, United Communications Corp., came as DirecTV was lobbying hard against carriage obligations in advance of its sale from News Corp. to Liberty Media Corp. The FCC announced its approval of that transaction Feb. 25.

WWNY highlighted the difference between promises for nationwide local programming made by News Corp. in 2003, when it acquired interest in DirecTV, and DirecTV’s demand not to have such a condition in the Liberty deal. DirecTV has offered to provide coverage of the smallest markets by deploying—and charging for—separate over-the-air receivers for local channels.

“The difference between News Corp.’s 2003 assertion and DirecTV’s January 30, 2008, statement may be the difference between survival and failure for smaller stations like WWNY-TV,” the broadcaster said in a letter to the commission. “The separate over-the-air receiver that DirecTV proposes to dole out to subscribers in markets that do not receive local-into-local service would not deliver WWNY-TV’s digital signal in these areas, and therefore would be useless to DirecTV’s subscribers.”

WWNY said it’s not suggesting that DirecTV bear the burden of resolving the station’s digital transition difficulties, but that it should live up to promises made to the commission. (That 2003 promise was not made a condition of News Corp.’s acquisition of DirecTV interest.)

The broadcaster points out that much of its service area has no access to cable, leaving satellite the only alternative to over-the-air TV. It also says it is the only broadcaster providing local news coverage.

“DirecTV’s proposal to require subscribers to spend an estimated additional $375 to receive local signals over the air may prove to be too expensive for many of WWNY-TV’s viewers and will certainly not encourage others for whom cost is an issue to subscribe to DirecTV’s service,” the broadcaster wrote. “For seniors and others on limited incomes, this is a substantial cost merely to replace what they now receive free of charge.”