Football fans who are Time Warner Cable (TWC) subscribers did without Friday and Saturday night NFL pre-season games on CBS in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and other markets where CBS owned and operated local stations have remained off the cable provider’s systems since August 2 in a dispute over retransmission consent fees. TWC has tried to placate angry customers by offering them free antennas so they can watch their local CBS station over the air. It has also provided a free preview of the Tennis Channel to subscribers who don’t already have it in an attempt to make up for their missing U.S. Open telecasts that began Monday on CBS. Tennis Channel and ESPN2 are carrying a lot of the U.S. Open matches, but the pivotal Women’s Singles and Men’s Singles Finals will be aired only on CBS, September 8th and 9th, respectively.
With the blackout now past the three-week mark, analysts are pointing to September 8th as the date when public opinion will really put the screws on the warring parties to reach a deal. That’s when the regular NFL season begins on CBS. Without a new agreement, some 3.5 million TWC subscribers in the MSO’s three biggest markets would again be unable to watch the football games unless they have a working antenna or go visit a friend or friendly bar that has the CBS broadcasts available from a telco or satellite provider.
For TWC, lost public opinion can easily translate to lost subscribers – especially with the highly competitive football package currently being offered and heavily promoted by DirecTV.
As is always the case in retransmission disputes, each side has blamed the other for intransigence blocking the completion of a new contract. With a situation as high-profile as the CBS/ TWC battle, the importance of staying ahead of the dialog and creating the message to the masses cannot be stressed enough. No one knows what really goes on behind closed doors during a tough contract negotiation. All they know is what the media tells them.
CBS took their case straight to the masses with a decisive public relations push. The network first scored a win when they announced a new retransmission agreement with Verizon FiOS that contains virtually the same exact terms that they have offered to TWC. CBS Corporation CEO, Les Moonves, used the opportunity to say he was “mystified” by TWC’s position and charged that the MSO is “demanding different terms than any other company in the business.”
CBS also gained some mileage from a Wall Street Journal article profiling TWC’s chief negotiator, Melinda Witmer. The article led off with a description of a telephone negotiation that “quickly went south” when Witmer surprised lower-level negotiators for CBS Corp. – first by even being on the call and then by trying to re-open issues they thought had already been settled related to the Showtime premium network. While the article also shared Witmer’s frustration with CBS, TWC was generally portrayed as an instigator in a situation in dire need of a peacemaker.
If TWC intends to sway public opinion and stave off a mass exodus of subscribers – they will need to initiate a PR push of their own, and quick.