Mediacom subscribers in East Central Illinois could lose access to ABC affiliate WICD-TV on Jan. 1 if the cable company and WICD's owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group, can't come to terms.
That would force Mediacom subscribers to find other ways to watch the Rose Bowl and Capital One Bowl games on New Year's Day and the BCS championship game on Jan. 7 – all of which are carried on ABC.
Mediacom and Sinclair are scheduled to enter mediation on Monday, and Phyllis Peters, communications director for Mediacom Communications, said she's "optimistic" the companies can reach an agreement.
But Tim Mathis, general manager of WICD-TV in Champaign and WICS-TV in Springfield, said he doesn't expect the stations to be carried by Mediacom after Dec. 31.
"We've heard from quite a number of people frustrated by the interruptions that are pending, and we're sorry for the inconvenience it causes," Mathis said. "We encourage people to make their feelings known to Mediacom."
The showdown could turn into a replay of three years ago, when Sinclair and Mediacom couldn't reach agreement over "retransmission consent" – the negotiated terms under which a cable company can carry a TV station on its system.
That time around, WICD was absent from the Mediacom lineup for nearly a month – from Jan. 6 to Feb. 3, 2007.
In East Central Illinois, Mediacom provides cable service in Rantoul, Mahomet, Gifford, Ludlow, Thomasboro, Fisher, Tolono, Pesotum, Ivesdale, Fairmount, Gibson City, Paxton, Melvin, Monticello, Bement, Mansfield, Cerro Gordo, Tuscola, Villa Grove, Camargo, Arcola, Arthur, Hammond, Clinton, DeLand, Weldon, Mattoon, Oakland, Sullivan, Hindsboro, LeRoy, Bellflower, Farmer City, Loda, Bayles Lake and Watseka.
Mathis said he figures that Mediacom subscribers account for somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of WICD and WICS viewers in those stations' designated market area.
If the two companies can't come to terms, Mediacom subscribers have several options for viewing WICD, Mathis said.
If they live in an area served by Consolidated Communications, they can receive the channel through that company, he said. That option is available to residents of Arcola, Arthur, Atwood, Oakland, Mattoon, Charleston, Ashmore, Humboldt and several other communities to the south, he said.
Mediacom subscribers can also turn to a satellite TV service, but they should make sure the installer can arrange for over-the-air service to get WICD, Mathis said.
"In most cases, it's very plausible for the satellite installer – whether it's Dish Network or DirecTV – to hook up the TV for both over-the-air and satellite," Mathis said. "But you need to be vigilant and clear with the installer that that's what you want."
Be careful if you go that route, he said. Some customer service representatives for satellite companies may claim you'll get all TV stations, but the lineup may not include WICD.
The most simple and inexpensive solution may be putting in an A/B switch and using a tabletop antenna with a digital receiver, Mathis said. How well that solution works depends on how far you are from the station's transmitter site.
Sinclair Broadcast Group, based in Hunt Valley, Md., owns, operates or provides services to 58 TV stations in 35 markets. Its stations reach 22 percent of the nation's households.
Mediacom Communications, based in Middletown, N.Y., is the nation's seventh-largest cable provider, serving 1,500 communities, many of them in the South and Midwest.
During the last standoff, Mediacom replaced ABC programming from WICD and WICS with Starz Kids and Family. But Peters said the company has no plans at this point for replacement programming if it can't work things out with Sinclair.
She said the Sinclair-Mediacom dispute has garnered the attention of consumer groups and members of Congress.
Peters said Mediacom has agreements to carry about 250 local TV stations and Sinclair is paid more for the rights to carry their stations, on a per-station basis, than other station owners are.
She said Sinclair is asking for 50 percent more compensation this time around, even though "there's no difference in product."
Sinclair, in turn, claims it's not being reimbursed as much as cable stations are.
In the "frequently asked questions" section of the WICD Web site, the station said it's "not sure why Mediacom has taken this stance and (is) insisting on paying us far less than what they pay to carry cable channels with far fewer viewers."
Sinclair said it doesn't have the same problem with most other cable systems.
"We have been able to complete retransmission consent agreements with virtually every other cable company that operates in our markets and do not understand why we are once again apparently unable to do so with Mediacom," a statement on the WICD Web site said.