Commentary

Summer Proves Fortuitous For TWC In CBS Battle

Time Warner Cable’s timing is fortuitous. If indeed CBS goes off its system in multiple markets this week, the blackout would come weeks before meaningful NFL games and the fall TV season begins.

This isn’t to say the lack of CBS programming wouldn’t be noticed, maybe highlighted by “Under the Dome” in prime time. Viewers in markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Dallas may also be disappointed without the CBS station’s local news.

But CBS is deep into summer re-runs. Top shows such as “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men” can be found elsewhere. A lot of elsewhere.

Also, “Under the Dome” episodes are available gratis on CBS.com. And, the CBS stations don’t have a monopoly on the local news.

Quick update: Time Warner Cable (TWC) and CBS are negotiating a renewal on a deal that includes retransmission consent for CBS-owned stations in many markets as well as Showtime across the country. The deadline for darkness has been pushed to early Thursday.

Should there be a blackout – and it just doesn’t seem fathomable with both sides having so much to lose – TWC would certainly inform viewers about how to find the CBS programming elsewhere.  

The New York Times reports TWC plans to plug Aereo as an option. The service offers live streaming of local stations and would be an alternative to watching the local CBS station in New York. But it’s curious why TWC would want to do that.

Aereo competes with TWC. Any viewers who realize Aereo is a fine and considerably cheaper alternative might be willing to cut the cord.

TWC building or buying its own Aereo-like system to avoid retransmission consent fees for local stations seems viable down the line. It will be interesting whether CBS, which believes Aereo is stealing its signal, will insist on language in a new contract preventing TWC from doing that.

One thing the TWC dispute may have done is convinced CBS not to cut retransmission consent deals that expire in the summer, if it hasn't adopted that policy already. Somewhere around October when the NFL is in full swing and new episodes of serial dramas are eagerly awaited might offer some leverage. 

Interesting to watch will be if TWC goes to a nuclear option in the event of a blackout. That would be taking advantage of language in a deal with the Nexstar station group allowing it to import CBS programming from outside markets.

TWC turned to the tactic last summer in a standoff with Hearst. So, while viewers of the Hearst-owned CBS affiliate in Louisville may have been a bit jarred when a Nexstar Rochester station showed up -- with ads from car dealers in upstate New York or news from the region -- the CBS prime-time shows were still there.

Each retransmission consent deal has all kinds of niceties, so there may be clauses in the TWC-CBS arrangement preventing any sort of signal importation. TWC may also have told Nexstar it wouldn’t engage in the tactic again.

Nexstar was apoplectic with TWC's move last summer and filed for an injunction on breach-of-contract and copyright infringement grounds, which was denied. Nexstar appealed and lost a ruling this spring and dropped the case this month.

Again, it seems unlikely CBS and TWC won’t come to an agreement before Thursday AM. Beyond the financials, neither side wants to go to Congress this fall and endure haranguing about turning consumers into pawns in a dispute between massive companies. Then again, the positive there is despite Congressional anger with blackouts, nothing seems to ever get done curtailing their likelihood.

Considering it’s summer, TWC would seem to have some leverage versus CBS due to re-runs and a dearth of blue-chip live sports – the PGA Championship on CBS isn’t until Aug. 10. But when blackouts occur, the cable company always seems to get the blame from consumers more than a network that delivers beloved programming.

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