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Television: Late deal keeps Florence station in cable lineup

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Pete Eisenberg of Heritage Plantation was surprised to find his Time Warner Cable CBS affiliate WBTW still operating when he turned on his television set Tuesday morning.

The Myrtle Beach station’s contract with Time Warner was scheduled to expire Monday night, and officials had said they were not optimistic about a new agreement.

But Media General, owner of WBTW in Myrtle Beach, and Time Warner Cable reached a deal in principle at 10:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, according to Randy Ingram, the television station’s vice-president and general manager. Talks centered on how much the cable provider should pay stations to retransmit NBC’s news shows, sporting events and other programming.

“I’m elated,” Eisenberg said when he was told about the three-year agreement to keep the Myrtle Beach channel available for local Time Warner subscribers. WBTW broadcasts an average of 29 hours per week of local news, weather and sports and also airs another 29 hours per week of CBS Network provided national news.

Still, Eisenberg added, this is just a small victory in a bureaucratic war with the Federal Communications Commission over Georgetown County being placed in what he says is the wrong designated market area: Charleston rather than 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.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg with the bigger issue being the Nielsen DMA,” Eisenberg said Wednesday. “This problem with WBTW was symptomatic of the problems we have. It was solvable when people got together. I don’t know how to resolve the bigger issue because the FCC has refused to deal with it. That’s wrong.”

The WBTW agreement stops the trend of Myrtle Beach area news and weather disappearing from area Time Warner Cable subscriptions.

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. A few years ago, an NBC affiliate for the Myrtle Beach/Florence market, WMBF, was blocked in the Pawleys Island area. Then CBS affiliate WBTW was taken off temporarily but brought back because of a technicality.

State Sen. Ray Cleary, a Murrells Inlet resident, has been working on legislation that would force parties to deal with the problem for three years with little progress.

Cleary had three bills drafted last year and has pre-filed them for consideration in the upcoming legislative session. The first regards 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 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.

The last 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.

Still, Cleary has said this is a federal issue that needs a federal solution.

Eisenberg has tried to get help from U.S. Senators Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham and from DeMint’s successor Rep. Tim Scott with no success.

He has higher hopes for new 7th District Rep. Tom Rice of Myrtle Beach, who discovered the situation when he found that reaching voters required him to advertise in two different market areas: Myrtle Beach and Charleston. Pawleys Island area residents were even deprived of watching the congressional debates because they were broadcast in the Myrtle Beach market and not in Charleston, which is in a different congressional district.

“Rice seems to be more receptive to talking about it,” Eisenberg said. “On the flip side, he’s got a lot to learn.”

Rice told the Coastal Observer last summer that the television station restriction appeared to be “just another nonsensical federal regulation.”

“People take everything by the book and don’t apply common sense to it,” he said. “We need to do what we can to get these people [Georgetown County residents] the media they want. We need to talk to people at the FCC and look at federal regulations to get a change or an exception made so these two areas that are so closely tied together — Horry and Georgetown counties — are in the same market. It’s important for public safety more than just convenience.”

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