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Settling their differences

Antietam, Nexstar reach a tentative agreement

Antietam, Nexstar reach a tentative agreement

December 29, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

Antietam Cable and NBC25's parent company reached a tentative agreement Wednesday to keep the local television station on the cable system beyond Saturday, both sides said Wednesday afternoon.

Antietam and NBC25's parent company, Nexstar Broadcasting Group Inc. of Irving, Texas, have been negotiating since October over the terms of an agreement the cable operator must have in place in order to carry WHAG-TV broadcasts.

"I'm just glad to have it done," Nexstar Chief Operating Officer Duane Lammers said, while declining to discuss specifics of the agreement. "We don't do any deal that we're not happy with."

While Antietam previously paid the company an undisclosed amount of money to carry NBC25 programming, Nexstar sought a monthly payment of about 30 cents for each of Antietam's paid subscribers, Lammers previously told The Herald-Mail. According to its Web site, Antietam has about 38,700 subscribers, which would work out to about $139,320 a year.

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The federal Telecommunications Act requires cable companies to enter into formal agreements, which are renegotiated periodically, in order to retain the right to carry local broadcast programs.

Antietam Cable President and General Manager Gene Hager said that while Antietam has paid Nexstar an undisclosed amount of money in the past for the right to carry NBC25 programming, and had offered to double that amount for a new agreement, Nexstar had been asking for an amount significantly in excess of that. He declined to discuss specifics, but said the figure was in the range of rates Antietam pays for some of its cable networks and, in some cases, higher.

After a volley of phone calls and e-mail correspondence between them over the past three months, Lammers sent Hager an e-mail Wednesday afternoon accepting Antietam's most recent offer. Hager said some details must be worked out before the two sides formalize the agreement.

"I'm very optimistic the deal will be completed very shortly," Hager said, adding both sides on Wednesday agreed to remove their issue-related advertising. "The only thing is, we have to have our counsel have a look at the agreement."

Neither side would discuss the terms of the agreement Wednesday.

Hager said it was a relief to put an end to the publicity campaigns both sides had been waging, through broadcasts, on their Web sites and in newspaper advertising.

"I hope to see all the disparagement of our company and our parent company stopped," he said. "We've always felt that these negotiations should be done in the boardroom, and not the media."

Antietam is owned by Schurz Communications Inc. of South Bend, Ind., a privately-held company that operates four broadcast television stations and 15 daily and weekly newspapers, including The Herald-Mail Co.

Hugh J. Breslin III, vice president and general manager of NBC25, said he considered the announcement a victory for his station's viewers.

"We're just very pleased for our viewers and very pleased for the community that NBC25 will continue to be shown on Antietam Cable," he said.

On Tuesday, before the tentative deal was reached, Hager said Antietam was in the process of developing alternate programming to provide Washington County residents with a source for community news. He said the precise formatting had not been determined, and did not rule out the possibility of a news-type program.

"We're exploring all our options at this point. We want to make sure that what we're looking at is providing Washington County information" specifically, Hager said Tuesday. "We're working on that right now."

For its part, NBC25 entered into a contract with Dish Network, a satellite-based operator that Breslin said agreed to meet Nexstar's requests. Despite Wednesday's developments, he said NBC25 will continue its relationship with Dish Network to give viewers an alternative to cable programming.

"The television distribution network has changed. Cable that was once a monopoly is no longer one," he said.

Antietam was the last cable operator carrying NBC25 that had not entered into a new agreement with Nexstar. Even without a new agreement, NBC25 planned to continue its programming, and Antietam Cable customers who wished could have watched the station by replacing the cable line connected to their televisions with an indoor antenna.

Lammers said Nexstar has sought customer-based fees in its negotiations with all the cable operators that carry its stations, including in about 140 agreements Nexstar and its stations have renegotiated in recent months. According to its Web site, Nexstar has 47 stations.

While he disputed Antietam's characterization of Nexstar's terms, and noted Nexstar has made counter-proposals as well, he declined to say what Antietam has misrepresented. At the outset of negotiations, he said, the two parties agreed to keep details of their discussions confidential.

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