090717 Media: Storm threat raises ire at loss of TV news coverage
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TV stations cover a press conference before Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Media: Storm threat raises ire at loss of TV news coverage

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

As the threat of Hurricane Irma looms, the Waccamaw Neck was suddenly limited in where residents can get their local information last week.

WBTW, the CBS affiliate in Myrtle Beach, went off the air in Georgetown County last week. There was no explanation, just the official comment from the station: “We have been informed that Charter/Spectrum has made the decision to drop WBTW’s out-of-market carriage on its systems serving Murrells Inlet, Pawleys Island, Georgetown and Cheraw. We believe Spectrum made this decision because these communities are assigned by the Nielsen Company to the Charleston Designated Market Area and not the DMA that WBTW serves. Therefore, despite WBTW’s proximity to these communities, Spectrum carriage of WBTW is optional.”

This means that Georgetown County is part of the Charleston DMA, which is unacceptable to many local residents. “Charleston basically seems to only care about Charleston,” Laurel Muelhauser, an area resident, said. She reported the outage last week to Spectrum and to WBTW, and gave WCSC from Charleston a try. “First of all their weather isn’t nearly as detailed as what WBTW does even for themselves. Because the Myrtle Beach station has what it’s going to be like at the coast and what it’s going to be like inland, which are significantly different.”

The weather report is one of Muelhauser’s big concerns. WCSC barely announces the current temperature in Georgetown, let alone on the Waccamaw Neck, she said. “In an area where we can have such devastating weather, we need accurate local weather,” Muelhauser said. “WBTW gives us projected temperatures for Litchfield, Murrells Inlet, Pawleys Island and Georgetown. They give us the details and they’re right.”

Besides knowing accurate weather for Waccamaw Neck, Muelhauser wants to know the local news. “The Charleston news is kind of interesting, but Myrtle Beach is my town,” she said. “It’s just a lot more germane and they occasionally cover a Waccamaw High football game or they mention something in Pawleys. Charleston never would.”

There seems to be no easy solution to the problem. Over the last decade, Peter Eisenberg has battled with Time Warner, the Nielsen Company and the Federal Communications Commission in the name of local coverage for the Waccamaw Neck. “I suspect it’s that same thing rearing its ugly head again,” said Eisenberg, who lives in Heritage Plantation.

WBTW was granted carriage on Time Warner Cable in 2009. Eisenberg was a key player in the 2008-09 installment of the “TV Battle” when WMBF came on the air and all Myrtle Beach affiliates were unceremoniously blocked from Georgetown County. Eisenberg and his cohorts escalated the issue to the FCC and all the Myrtle Beach stations, except WMBF, were “grandfathered in and permitted to broadcast on Time Warner Cable in Georgetown County because they existed before 1993 when the broadcast rulings were changed and are considered significantly viewed.”

But there have been some management changes since then. Charter Spectrum bought Time Warner, and Nexstar Media Group purchased WBTW from Media General. It’s rumored that Nexstar is butting heads with Spectrum about retransmission costs.

There are two ways broadcast TV stations are carried on a cable service, retransmission and must-carry. The FCC defines must-carry stations as ones that are guaranteed carriage on a cable system on a preferred channel number. Retransmission is consented transmission, in this case from a low power television provider, and may involve compensation from the cable company to the broadcaster for use of the signal. Cable operators must set aside a third of their channels, or three if there are 12 or fewer channels, for local noncommercial educational television stations.

If Nexstar priced WBTW out, then it would be up to Nexstar to fix it. If it turns out that WBTW was more expensive than its Charleston counterpart, then Spectrum possibly made a decision that they wouldn’t carry Myrtle Beach because they can carry the same programs on Charleston for less. Nexstar confirmed Wednesday that they sent a retransmission agreement to Spectrum and are waiting for a response. “The fact Time Warner has blocked it makes me think they’ve refused to accept it,” Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg doesn’t know for certain what’s going on yet, just what he’s heard, but he does know how to make changes happen. “I have personally filed a formal complaint with Time Warner Charter Spectrum and with the FCC at the direction of U.S. Rep Tom Rice’s office,” he said. “I think somebody needs to force the issue. It’s the retransmission versus must-carry rules.”

He also mailed a letter to Rice’s office. After Rice was elected for the then-newly created 7th Congressional District in 2012, when the “TV Battle” last occurred, he wrote a letter to the FCC on behalf of Georgetown County and its programming needs. Eisenberg credits Rice with the truce that’s been in place for WBTW and broadcast television in the area until now.

It’s about safety for Muelhauser. She knows there are alternatives to TV weather. She has weather.com open on her laptop all day and watches radar reports, but she still wants the local coverage. “I need to know what the flood stage is of the Waccamaw River in Conway,” she said. “Because what the Waccamaw River is doing in Conway will affect what the river is doing in Hagley Estates and all those communities. You just don’t know where it might flood and those kind of things change suddenly.”

There are two named storms in the Atlantic Ocean right now: Irma, and José. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center reports Katia, which is in the Gulf of Mexico, will likely not intensify and will drift toward Texas without much impact. José is trailing Irma and the impact to the United States is not yet known. Its path appears to be seaward. Irma is a Category 5 hurricane and is heading for south Florida. Winds are reported topping out at 185 miles per hour, more than 20 miles per hour higher than Hurricane Hugo at its worst in 1989. Irma’s predicted path toward and impact on South Carolina is still unknown as of Wednesday afternoon.

Those are general weather updates and not the type of local coverage Muehlhauser wants. While there is little definitive information available about the root cause of the problem, Eisenberg knows from experience it’s important to find out exactly what happened. “I don’t have a good answer except that I am continuing to press everybody that I can think of to try and resolve this issue,” he said.

It’s frustrating. Charleston isn’t going to report on anything going on in Georgetown County, Muehlhauser said. Another chapter of the “TV Battle” in Georgetown County is beginning. Eisenberg advises writing to Rice, state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch and state Rep. Lee Hewitt in addition to contacting Spectrum, the FCC and WBTW. The voices of many will be heard more clearly than the voices of a few. The ultimate fix would be to have the DMA changed for this area from Charleston to Myrtle Beach, Eisenberg said.

“I’m ready to go charging in again,” Eisenberg said. “They had the opportunity to fix it and they didn’t do it, and unfortunately we get caught holding the bag. We’ve just got to keep the pressure on.”

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