Now that the CBS/Time Warner/Bright House fight is over, will government act to keep it from happening again?
Now that CBS has finally mended fences with Time Warner Cable (and smaller sibling Bright House Networks), a new question emerges.
Should the government set new rules for these retransmission fights to protect consumers?
The conflict between CBS and Time Warner over fees kept some cable customers from seeing the network’s programming for a month. Here in the Tampa Bay area, Bright House customers couldn’t see The CW affiliate WTOG-Ch. 44 or Showtime, because CBS owns both platforms and the cable company negotiates its programming deals through Time Warner.
These blackouts came at a point where U.S. Open tennis was being broadcast on CBS, the football season was about to begin and Showtime’s crime drama Dexter is airing its final episodes as a series.
But service was restored at 6 p.m. Monday following a settlement between the two companies, which of course would not divulge details.
Some advocates in the cable industry say such outages provide proof that the struggle over retransmission fees – the money TV providers such as CBS demand from cable systems such as Time Warner and Bright House to “retransmit” their material – is only worsening and will only inconvenience customers more in the future.
At a press party held by CBS in Los Angeles last month, the network’s executives seemed to take the impasse with Time Warner extremely personally. CBS president Les Moonves pioneered balancing his company’s profits with payments from cable systems, and they seemed supremely annoyed by Time Warner’s tactic of offering small retransmission extensions to keep programming on their channels while negotiations dragged on.
Of course, American Cable Association president and CEO Matthew Polka had a different view, releasing a statement after news of the agreement broke.
“The CBS blackout also underscores the broadcast industry’s refusal to endorse new rules supported by cable operators that will allow consumers to continue to view programming while broadcasters and pay-TV operators continue to negotiate new contracts. From CBS’ shameful conduct over the past month – which included denying access to CBS online content to millions of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks broadband customers -- pay-TV customers should know that broadcaster blackouts that enrich firms like CBS while pushing cable bills even higher are the new normal.”
Bright House Networks Chief Executive Officer Steve Miron issued his own statement: “We’re pleased to be able to restore CBS-owned programming including Showtime, TMC, Flix, Smithsonian and WTOG (The CW) in Tampa to our customers. We certainly apologize to our customers for any inconvenience they experienced as a result of this dispute. The goal was to hold down rising costs as best as we can and retain our ability to deliver a great experience and value for our customers.”
According to the Associated Press: “The blackout affected about 1.1 million of New York's 7.4 million television households that get CBS. An estimated 1.3 million of 5.6 million households in Los Angeles were blacked out, along with 400,000 of Dallas' 2.6 million TV homes, CBS said. Those are three of the nation's five most populous television markets.”
The deal came shortly after news that the Federal Communications Commission was actively working to resolve the dispute. Now, some critics of the outage are demanding Congress pass legislation to prevent programming blackouts during similar conflicts – considered the primary leverage for both sides in such negotiations.
The American Television Alliance, a group which includes an array of cable and satellite companies, expressed such thoughts in their statement:
“When subscribers of six different providers in 58 markets are blacked out of 84 separate stations, how can Congress and the FCC fail to acknowledge that the 21-year-old retrans system is broken?" the group said.