The station that brings you It's Alive is now dead -- at least where cable subscribers are concerned.
On Feb. 2, Comcast dropped Green Tree-based WBGN from its line-up because the station failed to keep up with payments it must make to be carried on cable. Viewers with antennas can still watch WBGN on Channel 59, but WBGN officials have harsh words for their former cable provider -- as well as criticism of the country's telecommunications laws.
"Something's really wrong," says WBGN President Ron Bruno, whose station is perhaps best known for carrying a local horror-movie program, The It's Alive Show. WBGN also carries shows like American Idol Rewind and The Martha Stewart Show. "[Comcast] is charging customers the same money, but they took away a channel that people watch."
Federal law requires cable systems to reserve one-third of their channels for local broadcast stations, at no charge to the stations. But the "must-carry" legislation only applies to full-power stations like KDKA, WPGH and WPXI. Low-wattage stations like WBGN, meanwhile, must pay for their slots -- and Bruno says the fee isn't cheap.
Although he won't reveal exactly how much it costs WBGN to broadcast on Comcast, Bruno says it's in the six-digit range per month. (According to Federal Communications Commission standards, Comcast could charge as much as $2.5 million per year.) "You could buy the nicest home on the very nicest golf course every year for the money we pay them," he says.
Comcast officials declined to answer questions for this story, but they did release a statement explaining their move.
"Comcast regrets that it was forced to remove WBGN ... following numerous contractual and financial violations," the statement reads. "We are disappointed that despite repeated notifications ... WBGN continues to be out of compliance."
Bruno admits the station has fallen behind on payments to Comcast. Late last year, Bruno says, WBGN proposed to Comcast seven different options that would enable the station to pay back what they owed and continue making future payments on time. Comcast did not approve any of them, he says.
"They said, 'No. We're ending your contract,'" he says.
By dropping WBGN, Bruno contends, Comcast is also hurting itself. For one thing, he says, the company is terminating a contract that generates hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.
"How are they winning?" he asks. "[Comcast] is just not getting it."
Some WBGN viewers agree. More than 1,600 WBGN viewers have signed an online petition (www.petitiononline.com/wbgn2009/petition.html), urging the cable provider to negotiate a new contract.
Mark Menold, who has produced It's Alive for WBGN over the past four years, is particularly upset by Comcast's move. "I'm fighting it," he says. "[WBGN] is the home of our show."
On Feb. 9, Menold says he met with Comcast officials, who are trying to negotiate a way to continue airing It's Alive on the cable network. Although they have yet to finalize an agreement, he says they discussed putting the show on OnDemand, or continuing to keep the show running at its former slot on Comcast every Saturday.
Comcast still airs a live, midday Mass from St. Mary's Church, Downtown, despite having terminated WBGN's contract. And Menold -- who dressed as a zombie character from his show during his meeting with Comcast -- says there is a chance they could let his program continue airing, too.
Still, Menold says he wants WBGN back in its entirety. Unfortunately, he says, "[Comcast officials] would not discuss WBGN."
Bruno says his station is trying to negotiate a deal with Verizon, which is currently negotiating with the city of Pittsburgh to provide cable service. Contracts aside, however, Bruno says federal "must-carry" laws should be changed so all local channels are treated equally.
Bruno says WBGN has pleaded with Rep. Mike Doyle, of Pittsburgh, who serves as vice chairman of a Congressional subcommittee on telecommunications, to broaden the "must-carry" laws. But so far, Bruno says, "He's refused."
Doyle could not be reached for an interview, but his staff issued a statement in which Doyle says, "I am certainly aware of the low-power TV must-carry issue WBGN mentioned on its Web site. This is a national issue that doesn't affect just WBGN."
Doyle's statement adds that he's discussed the issue with WBGN and other interested parties. "The low-power must-carry issue is something that the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee is looking into," the statement continues, "but I don't anticipate any action on it in the immediate future."
Bruno says he's not surprised. Cable providers like Comcast have been generous campaign contributors to Doyle, he notes. According to campaign-finance records, Doyle has received roughly $75,000 from cable-company PACs and telecommunication lobbying groups since 2004. More than $25,000 of that has come from Comcast.