By Jon Healey
7:03 PM EDT, August 9, 2013
This post has been corrected, as noted below.
Precious close to 100% of the columns written about the dispute between CBS and Time Warner Cable have declared both sides to be villainous, anti-consumer and (gasp!) profit-obsessed.
Which raises the obvious question, which one do you sue?
In Milwaukee, where Time Warner has been embroiled in a lengthy contract dispute with the owner of the local NBC affiliate, three Milwaukee residents suggest that the answer is the cable operator. They've filed a lawsuit claiming the company violated its contract with them by dropping the station, WTMJ-TV. And magnanimously, they've asked the court to grant them class-action status so they can seek damages (including credits for the time spent without the station) on behalf of all their fellow Time Warner customers.
I understand the pain that these folks must be feeling, considering that the Green Bay Packers' first exhibition game on WTMJ will be blacked out on Time Warner on Friday if the dispute isn't miraculously resolved. (A Spanish-language broadcast will air as scheduled on the local Telemundo channel.) And they're playing their longtime rival, the Arizona Cardinals! OK, so maybe there's not much rivalry there, but the Cardinals are the team to beat this year! OK, so maybe the Cardinals are the team that will be beaten this year, repeatedly, but still -- it's the first game of the year! Even if it is an exhibition game.
Sorry, I digress. Not to take Time Warner's side here, but it's not as if it had a lot of choice in the matter. Its contract to carry stations owned by the Journal Broadcast Group had expired, and the two sides couldn't agree how much Time Warner should pay to renew its rights. To continue retransmitting WTMJ's signal without authorization would have invited a lawsuit by the station owner.
The situation is similar in Time Warner's dispute with CBS, which is affecting local stations in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and a few smaller markets. Each of the companies has blamed the other for the impasse. And each is demanding something the other is reluctant to give: CBS wants a significantly higher fee for its retransmission rights, and Time Warner wants the ability to transmit CBS' shows to its subscribers' mobile devices.
But once a pay-TV operator and a network reach an impasse, a blackout seems a foregone conclusion. In fact, the networks' trade association, the National Assn. of Broadcasters, has fiercely resisted any effort to compel retransmission during a dispute over fees. That's because broadcasters (and cable operators) recognize that keeping the programs on the air only reduces the pressure pay-TV operators get from their subscribers to cut a deal.
The pain of Packers' fanatics is shared by football fans in Time Warner's blacked out CBS markets; CBS televises games featuring teams from the AFC. If you were staring at the prospect of a blacked-out game, what would you do? Take our litigiously unscientific poll, leave a comment ... or do both!
[For the Record, Aug. 9, 5:40 p.m.: The original version of this post incorrectly identified WTMJ-TV as a CBS affiliate, and linked the dispute in Milwaukee to Time Warner's fight with CBS in Los Angeles and other markets. It is separate.]
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