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Blame for Bend Cable's infomercials depends on who you ask
By Robert Speik Op-ed for the Bulletin

It was 7 p.m. March 1 and my wife was really mad. "ABC and two CBS stations are all airing the same stupid infomercial in prime time on Bend Cable", she called from the living room. Bang, she was on the phone to complain. Bend Cable said, "Don't blame us. It's the fault of Z21."

I checked out the infomercial on channels 2, 6 and 13 and then I got mad, too. The next morning I called Z21 and someone there said, "Don't blame us - it's the fault of Bend Cable."

Well, here is what I found out.

I asked to talk to the manager at Bend Cable. Eric Powelson - a customer service representative, not the manager as it turns out - called me back and told me that Z21 had purchased exclusive rights in Central Oregon to air syndicated reruns of popular shows including "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy" and "Entertainment Tonight." A Federal Communications Commission rule permits a local station to protect its turf from big city stations, and Z21 had exercised this right, he explained.

Powelson said that Bend Cable and Gilchrist Cable were getting lots of complaints about the infomercials and some viewers had even pulled the plug on cable and taken up reading or purchased a dish. He offered to send me a letter written by the company's attorneys explaining why showing infomercials on ABC and CBS at 7 p.m. Wednesday was not its fault.

Well, I called Z21 and asked for the station manager, Bill Bradley. I left a fairly explicit message for him and soon he called me back. Bradley confirmed that Z.21 had exclusive air rights to several popular shows. Advertisers will pay the station more for commercials if the audience is exclusive. Z21 needs advertising dollars to pay for local news, sports and weather. Local advertisers need a local station with local rates: Portland commercial rates might be 10 times the local rate, according to Bradley.

Sounds reasonable.

Bradley said one problem is that Bend Cable is offering on its basic service two ABC and two CBS stations from the Willamette Valley. They have overlapping programming of syndicated shows that compete with each other and with Z21. The Bulletin Scene magazine for 7 p.m. March 1 illustrates this problem. Check it out. In a big market, big-city stations just tough it out for the advertising dollar and the viewers get to choose if, or when and on which station they want to watch reruns of "Wheel," "Jeopardy" and so on.

These popular shows are first aired by their parent ABC, CBS, NBC and so on, but when they go to reruns, they are syndicated or sold to any station for airing as the station programs its local service. Bradley noted that our idea of prime time was not the same as the TV biz's prime time: 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. But, my wife thinks prime TV time is from 5 to 9 p.m., and she doesn't even want to surf by an infomercial.

This brought me around to the question of why air infomercials and .not some good PBS style programs? Powelson said Bend Cable had to choose between a blank screen on channels 2, 6 and 13 or airing an infomercial. Bend Cable is paid for running the infomercial, but this barely covers the cost of the technician to pull the plugs and play the infomercial, he said. Really?

Bradley says, "(It) should not be so. Unless the cable company has a prohibition in their negotiated retransmit agreement with a (Western Oregon) station, it should be able to purchase other programs than an infomercial."

The consequence of airing these infomercials could be loss of cable users and an increase in public library patronage.

Robert Speik is a resident of Bend

Copyright © 2000 by Robert L. Speik. All rights reserved.