Time Warner Cable says it has a
limited number of antennas to give out free at its local stores starting Friday, but will also offer customers a $20 coupon to buy them at Best Buy. The antennas will allow TWC customers to receive
blacked-out CBS-owned local stations in five markets, including New York, Los Angeles and Dallas.
CBS and TWC have been locked in a standoff since Aug. 2 involving retransmission payments
that would flow from TWC to CBS. The lack of agreement has left CBS programming unavailable in parts of the three large markets, with stations such as WCBS in New York and KCBS in Southern California
TWC is also locked in a similar standoff with Journal Communications, bringing blackouts of the NBC affiliates to parts of Milwaukee and Green Bay. Customers in those markets
will also have the antenna-acquisition option at TWC retail locations and Best Buy.
It is a risky move for TWC, but could change the face of retrans consent negotiations. It could open the
door for cable, satellite and telco TV operators frustrated by the rising costs of carrying broadcast stations to offer an alternative -- a free one. It will go around the distributor and gives
customers access to NFL games and the other types of programming that broadcasters may try to use as leverage in disputes to settle on terms that TWC finds unacceptable.
The antennas would
seem to be only a temporary solution in the CBS standoff. Even if the CBS stations are available, CBS would still block TWC customers from access to Showtime. A similar dynamic would likely hold in
disputes with Disney and NBCUniversal, where each might say no to ABC or NBC broadcast stations, then no access to cable outlets.
But the matter could take on a completely different dynamic
in the disputes with Journal Communications and other station operators without cable assets. There, in theory, antennas could circumvent the blackouts and save TWC money over the long term. (DirecTV
has signaled that it may move in that direction.)
Of course, a long-term maneuver would be predicated on loads of customers being willing to go to a TWC store or Best Buy, then have a
compatible TV for the antennas and hook it up themselves. Not hard for the tech-savvy, but it could be tougher for others.
The TV antenna compatibility issue offers a notable hurdle:
Customers must have a digital set with a digital tuner or a proper digital converter box, which TWC is not giving away for free and would have to be purchased. Also, TWC notes that customers must be
in proper range of a broadcast tower transmitting the stations and not have buildings, mountains and other obstacles that block the signals.
But if antennas are installed, customers will
get the blacked-out stations and continue to get ESPN, Bravo and other cable channels via their set-top boxes.
At the very least, even if consumer uptake of the offers is low, TWC has some
grist to go before Congress and highlight that it is being charged to carry stations that are available free over the air.
There is some risk in that if customers install the antennas,
which allow reception of many broadcast channels, they might just drop their TV service in order to save money.