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CBS, Fox warned Watertown stations about signing contract with Dish Network

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CBS and Fox likely would have cut ties with the parent company of two Watertown television stations if it signed a contract proposed by Dish Network allowing the satellite television provider to reschedule program times and zap out commercials.

WWNY-7 News and WNYF-Fox 28 are owned by Kenosha, Wis.-based United Communications Corp., which is still negotiating a three-year contract with Dish after a blackout on Oct. 10 in which transmission signals for the Watertown stations were blocked. Customers won’t get those stations back until the two parties agree to contract terms.

“We’re caught in the middle,” said Cathy M. Pircsuk, general manager of the two Watertown stations. “If we sign with Dish and that violates contracts with CBS and Fox, then it’s possible we could lose contact with our networks. So we’re certainly not going to be put in that position.”

United and Dish agreed to the financial terms of the contract in August. But Dish reworded language included in the previous contract that would give it more retransmission rights, Ms. Pircsuk said. Under that revised contract, Dish would be granted authority to modify the way programming is transmitted by CBS and Fox after receiving over-the-air signals. Shifting the times at which programs will air, for example, and discontinuing commercial time would be allowed.

“Everyone now wants a piece of what this new technology is going to offer and to get certain rights,” Ms. Pircsuk said. “Zapping out commercials and time shifting could technically be allowed, but our contracts with networks restrict what we can do with signals when they’re sent to our stations. We have contracts to run programs at specific times, and we don’t want to be in the middle of contracts we’ve signed with Fox and CBS. We ran the language by them, and they said they wouldn’t sign it and suggested our partnership might be jeopardized.”

Television giants such as CBS, Time Warner Cable and DirecTV began getting into disputes with broadcasters a few years ago, when cable and satellite carriers claimed they should be able to carry network signals free because they are free over the air, said Richard Dubin, professor of television and film at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Mr. Dubin directed and produced primetime programs for ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX before joining the Newhouse faculty in 2000.

“Signals coming over the air were thought to be the public’s property, so the cable companies made the argument that they are part of the public and should have rights to receive signals,” Mr. Dubin said. “CBS took the lead in saying, ‘You’re not an individual, you’re a corporation. And we’re not going to give you this signal as if you were an individual. You can’t resell it unless you have a carriage fee.’”

Today, the war between broadcasters and television companies is centered on what rights they have to use over-the-air signals in any manner they want, Mr. Dubin said. After learning the particulars of Dish’s dispute with United Communications, Mr. Dubin contended that CBS will not allow Dish Network to manipulate its over-the-air programming.

“If Dish Network wants to use CBS’s signal at will, make all the bets you can make — it’s not going to happen,” he said.

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