Discovery buys sat slot; cablers cautious

NEW YORK – Discovery’s new Animal Planet cable network has alienated some cable operators and may have overplayed its hand in buying out the satellite slot occupied by WWOR. Latter officially ends its 17-year reign as a superstation this week, closing out a year that has put superstations on the endangered species list.

Dozens of cable operators outside Greater New York that carry WWOR on systems reaching about 12.5-million subscribers were notified out of the blue on Dec. 23 that Eastern Microwave, the satellite distributor of the WWOR signal, would obliterate the superstation as of 6 a.m. on Dec. 31.

Seizing the opportunity, Discovery Networks struck a deal with Eastern Microwave to make Animal Planet the replacement service for WWOR – and a number of cable operators are less than thrilled with Discovery’s aggressiveness.

“Our screens are going to go black” when WWOR expires, said Phil Laxar, head of programming for Jones Intercable, a top-10 multi-system cable operator, which has funneled WWOR to about 250,000 of its subscribers.

Laxar said he’s already negotiated separate deals for Animal Planet in a few Jones cable systems, but added that he had no warning of the Dec. 31 transformation of WWOR into Animal Planet.

“What I found misleading is the on-screen crawl saying that WWOR will give way to Animal Planet,” Laxar said. “That’s very slick on Discovery’s part, but the strategy could backfire” because Jones hasn’t signed any contracts yet for Animal Planet in its systems that will lose WWOR. Those include systems in such lucrative suburban areas as Alexandria, Va.; Prince Georges County, Md.; Broward County, Fla.; and Surfside Beach, S.C.

A spokesman for Discovery confirmed that the company started running a notice on Dec. 24 informing cable viewers of WWOR’s programs outside New York that Animal Planet will be the replacement program service. And he added that Discovery’s affiliate sales executives are blanketing the WWOR systems, offering them one of two deals:

* Payment of $5 per subscriber on the first day of launch, with the added inducement of no monthly per-subscriber license fees for the first year.

* Payment of $1 per subscriber from day one, with five years of no monthly per-sub license fees.

Other sources said cable operators could get even better terms if they agreed to roll out Animal Planet, which kicked off seven months ago, to their entire subscriber base within the first two years.

Seizing the satellite

The spokesman said Discovery had nothing to do with Eastern Microwave’s decision to drop WWOR. But once Discovery learned of the move, it quickly worked out a deal to get WWOR’s transponder slot, because the quicker a new network builds its circulation, the faster Madison Avenue will jump in to buy time on the channel.

Sources said Eastern Microwave had to drop WWOR before the end of the year, because if the superstation continued to be distributed even one day into the new year, cable operators that picked it up would be obligated to make payments to the Copyright Royalty Tribunal for the first six months of 1997.

Those fat payments to the CRT are one of the reasons why “superstations have become an anachronism in today’s cable universe,” Laxar said. “Superstations were fine 10 or 15 years ago when cable networks were in their infancy and we needed recognizable programming.”

Exclusive nightmare

But one big drawback to superstations now, in addition to the CRT payments, Laxar said, is that some of WWOR’s best programming – like the UPN network shows and reruns of “Married …With Children” – have to be covered over with inferior replacement series because of regional exclusivity contracts.Another negative for Laxar is that with superstations, cable systems don’t get two commercial minutes an hour within a pre-programmed broadcast to sell to local advertisers. Those two minutes are a standard part of almost all basic-cable network contracts.

Indeed, with WTBS in the process of transforming itself from a superstation into a cable network, and Tribune Broadcasting’s WGN possibly losing more than half of its 43.6-million subscribers outside the Greater Chicago area over the next year or two due to unfavorable market conditions, the end may be near for superstations.