THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
Television: Viewers upset by rules that put them in the Charleston market
By Jackie R. Broach
Traffic is backed up in Charleston and it’s raining in Mount Pleasant.
For the most part, Pawleys Island area residents don’t care on a day to day basis, but those are the kinds of headlines they’re getting when they tune into the news on their ABC affiliated TV station.
It’s something many who live on the Waccamaw Neck are up in arms about. Charleston news isn’t local news for the Waccamaw Neck. Myrtle Beach area stations are closer and their stories are more relevant to people in Georgetown County. Pawleys Island area residents want their news from the Myrtle Beach area, but they don’t get a say.
“It’s a safety issue,” said Peter Eisenberg of Heritage Plantation. “From where I live, the airport in Myrtle Beach is about 25 miles. Downtown Charleston is about 75 miles. Getting the news from Charleston, we don’t get the local news and weather. We aren’t getting the local police reports, the emergencies and hurricane news. We don’t get the local crime issues. The news we’re getting doesn’t come from where we live. It’s a hazard when we don’t understand something like the local potential from tropical storms and hurricanes. The weather patterns are significantly different here than they are in Charleston.”
Cable and satellite subscribers in the Pawleys Island area no longer get news from WPDE, the ABC news affiliate for the Myrtle Beach and Florence market, because Georgetown County falls into the same designated market area as Charleston, even though it has more in common with Myrtle Beach. Designated market areas are assigned by Nielsen Market Research. A non-duplication clause in network affiliate contracts prohibits stations from outside the designated market area from being carried on cable and satellite systems.
It’s a situation Eisenberg has been educating himself on since 2008 when WMBF, an NBC affiliate for the Myrtle Beach/Florence market was blocked in the Pawleys Island area. He has been fighting ever since to get changes enacted that would allow the community to access local news.
For a brief time WMBF and WCBD, the NBC affiliate for the Charleston market, were on the air. When WMBF was made available in August 2008, Eisenberg was “elated,” he said. “Finally we had a local NBC station to complement the other networks.”
But Media General, the company that owns WCBD, called WMBF on violating the duplication restriction and told Time Warner Cable to block the other station or face legal action. It was “blocked unceremoniously” on Dec. 1, he recalled.
The following year viewers suffered a similar situation with WBTW, the CBS affiliate for the Myrtle Beach/Florence market, and its counterpart in Charleston, WCSC. WBTW was blocked temporarily and brought back only because of a technicality.
For the time being, WBTW continues to be broadcast on the Wacccamaw Neck, as do two other Myrtle Beach/Florence stations: WFXB, a Fox affiliate, and WWMB, an affiliate of the CW network. Those stations remain on the air for now because they were broadcasting in Georgetown County along with Charleston market stations before rules for cable TV were written in the early 1990s.
But don’t count on those stations being allowed to stay in northern Georgetown County, Eisenberg warns.
“Mark my words, the way they blocked WBTW, ultimately Fox will go the same way.”
In the rules, there’s a way for residents of a region to select their programming over time, but it’s set up in a way as to be of no real use, according to Eisenberg. Nielsen does quarterly marketing sweeps in which all the network stations must show viewership — essentially who is watching what. The designated marketing
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area for a community can be changed based on the results of those surveys if the results repeat over two consecutive sweep periods.
“But it’s a Catch-22,” Eisenberg said. “If Georgetown County could vote that they only watch Myrtle Beach stations and not Charleston, they would change the DMA. I submit that will never happen for two reasons.”
First, are the local demographics, he said. Georgetown County receives its broadcasts almost exclusively via cable service rather than traditional over-the-air antennas. Antennas are how Nielsen collects their data. That means input isn’t coming from satellite users either, he points out.
Cable and satellite customers don’t have a choice of stations to pick from and since all stations aren’t open to them, they can’t “vote” to get the designated market area changed, Eisenberg explained.
State Sen. Ray Cleary has some ideas to remedy the situation, but change will take time if it can be achieved at all, he said.
Cleary started working on legislation that would fix the designated market area problem two years ago when the issue first cropped up in Georgetown County and voters, including Eisenberg, came to him for help. For a number of reasons, the issue never made it to the point of being introduced and the legislature’s focus on redistricting made it hard to pick up the process in the last session.
Two weeks ago, “I met with the judiciary attorney and said enough was enough,” Cleary said. He’s having three bills drafted, and while he’s not sure if attorneys will deem them constitutional, it’s possible the threat that they could be introduced and the publicity they generate could be enough to motivate change.
The first bill, according to Cleary, would regard the ability of Nielsen to make decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of South Carolinians. Under that legislation, county councils would be able to challenge Nielsen’s decisions on a county’s designated market area and have the market area changed for the whole county or have the county split between market areas. In Georgetown County’s case, that would allow the southern areas of the county to remain in the Charleston market if that’s what residents want, but areas closer to Myrtle Beach could be moved.
A second bill in the works would make Nielsen liable if injury or damage results from its decisions on designated market areas. For example, if death resulted from a tornado in Pawleys Island and residents didn’t have access to information from local TV broadcasts that allowed them to act quickly and responsibly, Nielsen could be held accountable.
That threat alone could be enough to convince the company to revisit its decisions on designated market areas.
Finally, Cleary wants to introduce legislation that would allow businesses to recoup financial losses from Nielsen if they can prove the company’s decisions caused economic damage. For example, a business in Pawleys Island or Litchfield could require the company to make up for revenue lost as a result of the need to advertise in two markets to reach its target audience.
Without access on the Waccamaw Neck to TV stations in the Myrtle Beach market, businesses who want to reach customers on the Neck and the Grand Strand have to either double their advertising costs to reach customers in two markets or pick between markets and miss out on reaching customers in one of those areas.
“I think even from a tourism standpoint it’s not a good thing,” said Bob Jewell, president and CEO of Brookgreen Gardens. “You’re now competing with everyone else in the Charleston market.”
However, Jewell’s concerns about the designated marketing area situation are more personal that professional.
“We’re missing out on the more detailed information about what’s going on in our own county or city,” he said. “Most of us don’t really care if the traffic in Charleston is backed up. We care if it’s backed up here on 17 ... There has to be a solution that would satisfy the matter of common sense, because this seems to fly in the face of common sense.”
The bills Cleary has in the works should be ready for review around the first of April and Cleary hopes to be able to submit them by the middle of the month.
“I think especially the one letting county governments sign off on designated market areas is a very reasonable bill,” Cleary said. “I think the issue resonates in a lot of areas of the state. I think it’s reasonable, but don’t confuse me with a lawyer, least of all a constitutional lawyer.”
He’s waiting like everyone else to see if the bill passes muster as it undergoes review by legal experts, he added.
Cleary tried simpler ways to resolve the situation, he said, but “Nielsen refused to come to the table.”
He has also been unable to get support for his efforts from congressmen, including Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. James Clyburn. Clyburn’s daughter, he points out, is an FCC commissioner.
Eisenberg has also been unable to get support in his grassroots campaign to change the designated market area. He has contacted a list of people ranging from local legislators to the president, and including Clyburn’s daughter, Mignon, representatives from Nielsen, and media companies involved, and representatives of local TV stations — anyone he could think of who might be able to help. He contacted Time Warner, “but their hands are tied. They’re a victim the way we are.”
“I don’t know how many letters I’ve written and phone calls I’ve made, but it has been a lot,” Eisenberg said.
The general lack of response has been disappointing, but he isn’t backing down.
Cleary has been supportive, he noted, and so has Vida Miller, who was a state House member when he started his campaign. Though she is no longer in office, she has continued to try to help, Eisenberg said. He contacted her successor, Rep. Kevin Ryan, but never heard back, he said.
Ryan said he replied to Eisenberg’s e-mail on Wednesday morning. Eisenberg is one of two constituents he has been contacted by on the issue and is still looking into the situation.
“Since Nielsen is a private organization and the FCC is federal, I don’t know that much can be done from the state level,” Ryan said. “That said, I agree that the issue needs to be addressed.”
Eisenberg said he will also contact candidates running for the new 7th Congressional District, but he’s waiting until closer to the election.
“I’ve gone every route I know,” Eisenberg said. “But without public support this is going to go by the wayside the same as it did four years ago.”
He urges those who share his concerns to get involved and contact their representatives in the state and in Congress.
“Write letters,” he exclaimed. He wants all county residents to write to elected officials and to the powers that be at Nielsen.
“There’s power in numbers and the more people who write, the better chance we have of evoking change,” Eisenberg said. “If people say they agree and don’t do anything, this is going to fall flat on its face, there’s no doubt in my mind.”