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No End in Sight
The dispute between WTMJ-4 and Time Warner Cable drags on and on.
 
Screen shot of Channel 4 on TWC
The old adage goes like this: If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around, is there a sound?

The same might be said about the absence of channel 4 (WTMJ) from the Milwaukee Time Warner Cable TV lineup. Do people really miss channel 4? From what I’ve been reading and hearing, the number who do is pretty small.

And the longer the nearly two-month long battle between station owner Journal Communications and the cable giant over retransmission fees charged by the broadcaster, the more that number will decline. 

One would have thought the last Packer pre-season game a couple of weeks ago would have brought about a settlement.

Nope.

Surely then the first Sunday Night Football broadcast – ironically on Thursday, Sept. 5 – would bring the two sides together. This after all is the network’s, and the local station’s, highest rated Fall program. 

Nope.

How about the second Sunday Night Football broadcast, this one appropriately this past Sunday, the first full day of the regular NFL season and another potential high ratings bonanza for the station?

Nope again. 

This ridiculous dispute drags on and on. And on.

As I opined in this space last month, WTMJ4 is losing far more than Time Warner Cable here. They’ve been off the air for an astounding 50 days now, and are becoming less and less relevant to the Milwaukee community every day.

Despite claims to the contrary, Time Warner customers are not lining up in droves to return their cable boxes. Estimates are floating around that less than 1 percent of TWC subscribers have cancelled their service since the beginning of the dispute, a number not too much higher than their normal attrition rate.

Three TWC customers filed a lawsuit against the cable operator over the dispute in Milwaukee County Circuit Court on Aug. 8. That was a month ago. Have you heard anything about that since?

Advertisers are avoiding WTMJ4 like the plague now, since Time Warner has over 35 percent of the TV households in Milwaukee and that audience isn’t being delivered.

But the real tragedy lies beyond the viewers and advertisers.  It’s the employees of Journal Communications who are taking a real bath here.

Journal Communications stock has dropped 22 percent since the blackout began on July 25, according to "The Street”, while the S&P fell only 2.1 percent during the same period.

And it’s worse for the representatives who sell channel 4 advertising time. They are enduring a double hit, because they are paid on commission. Lower ad sales equal lower paychecks. Add that to the falling stock and this is becoming a real financial burden for them.

So the question is why Steve Wexler, Exec VP for TV and Radio Operations for Journal Broadcast Group, has his heels, and his head, dug deeply in the sand. It might be financial, since he is holding out for a substantial increase in those retransmission fees. It might be on principle, since Hearst Corporation, owners of WISN-12 TV in Milwaukee, settled for a similar amount last year. Or it might be just stubbornness, not wanting to give in to the cable giant who has the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any company involved in Cable TV.

Whatever the reason, I think that the long-term effects on the TV station will be significant. It is doubtful they’ll regain the audience they’ve lost during the dispute. NBC’s weak prime time schedule, ranked 4th out of the four major networks, won’t win many viewers back. Nor will WTMJ4’s local news, which has received less than critical acclaim in the wake of the dispute.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. One thing for sure, the Journal Communications and WTMJ4 employees are the ones who have to watch out for the falling tree.





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