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Time Warner Cable, CBS bury the coaxial

The settlement of the bitter contract negotiations between Time Warner Cable and CBS cost cable subscribers in Los Angeles, New York and Dallas a month of darkness on CBS-owned channels. Viewers were denied "Under the Dome," "Ray Donovan" and, in L.A., nine Dodgers games. Outlets affected included the CBS-owned KCBS and KCAL TV stations as well as the cable channel Showtime.

Not surprisingly, the two giant corporations settled less than a week before the kickoff of the National Football League season, much of which airs on CBS. A football blackout would have been bad news for both Time Warner, which might have lost subscribers, and CBS, which might have lost ratings and advertisers. Neither side divulged details of the new contract, but both put out statements declaring some measure of satisfaction.

We're glad the battle is over but annoyed that it took so long. And here's a word of warning to the companies: Viewers may not continue to tolerate extended blackouts and constantly rising fees. They have now had a month to consider alternatives — satellite TV, online video on demand, phone companies' TV services — and next time there's a blackout, they'll be more informed about their choices and perhaps more willing to drop cable altogether. Many in the generation just coming out of college don't intend to start. They believe cable is a bad value.

A significant underlying issue in this dispute was whether the correct balance of power exists between broadcasters and cable providers. This would be a good time for Congress to reevaluate the federal regulations that may contribute to these prolonged standoffs.

We are not suggesting that Congress interfere heavy-handedly in the business by, for instance, taking away the right of broadcasters to withhold programming. But maybe cable operators should have other means of replacing programming when content providers pull it during a dispute.

Although CBS was demanding higher fees from Time Warner Cable, which the operator publicly balked at, the most difficult negotiations in this case were said to be over digital rights. CBS wanted the broadest possible ability to sell its programming to digital platforms, while Time Warner Cable wanted rights to as much content as possible. According to news reports, CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves suggested in a memo to staff that the network had prevailed as far as online transmission rights were concerned.

Time Warner Cable Chief Executive Glenn Britt lamented that the regulations in the 1992 Cable Act, establishing the right of broadcasters to seek compensation from pay-TV operators airing their programming, were "woefully out of date." He's right about that. It's time for Congress to adjust them to catch up with two decades of enormous changes in the way television shows are made, sold and shown in this country.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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