2019 Brings Another Wave Of Cable Programming Blackout Feuds Nobody Wants To Address

from the just-cut-the-cord-already dept

We've written for years about how retransmission and carriage fee disputes in the cable industry have grown increasingly common and are only getting worse. The short version: when it comes time to sign a new deal paying for content, broadcasters generally demand huge rate hikes for the same channels. Cable operators then play hardball, and during negotiations one side or the other (usually broadcasters) pulls their content from the cable lineup in a bid to apply the resulting consumer anger against the other guy in negotiations.

According to cable providers, there were 140 such blackouts last year, up from just 8 back in 2010. One of the biggest problems with these feuds: consumers never see refunds, even though they're often left without access to channels they've already paid for, for months. And while regulators from both parties occasionally make some noise about protecting consumers from such tactics, nothing ever actually happens. Generally, these fights are seen by regulators as "boys just being boys," and the consumer impact is routinely ignored.

So as 2019 arrives, so too arrive yet another round of consumers losing access to content they pay for. Millions of Charter (Spectrum) customers in 24 markets this week lost access to local broadcast channels after the cable company couldn't reach an agreement with Tribune Media:

"As many as 24 markets are affected by the TV blackout, including Denver, Houston, New York, Los Angeles and St. Louis. Tribune pulled its signal at 5 p.m. Eastern time after negotiations stalled. The programming outage comes days before sports fans are expected to switch on their cable TV to watch highly anticipated postseason college and professional football games.

The same story is playing out between Verizon (FiOS TV) and Tegna, resulting in Verizon cable TV customers losing access to local broadcast channels just as the NFL playoffs heat up. And while broadcasters often do deserve the blame for the outages for demanding huge and often unreasonable increases, it's fun to watch cable providers (legendary for their own nickel-and-diming) claim they're the ones standing up for consumers:

"The talks stalled because Tegna had demanded a “significant rate increase” for its channels, said Verizon in a statement on its website.

“The rising cost of programming is the single biggest factor in higher TV bills, and we are standing up to broadcasters like Tegna in order to protect you from rate increases,” Verizon said.

Of course it has been made pretty clear that nobody in this dance of dysfunction (including regulators) actually really cares about the impact on consumers. As a result what usually happens is customers get pissed, they're directed by both sides to yell at the other guy, prompting the two sides to strike a confidential new deal. Those costs are then quietly passed on to consumers, and the whole thing repeats itself in a year or two.

The FCC has occasionally pondered rules requiring that the two sides engage in "good faith" negotiations without harming user access to the content they've paid for, but because this is seen as "heavy handed intervention in the markets" in American culture, nothing really gets fixed as we wait, rather uselessly, for "the market" to somehow magically fix itself. But because said market is a coagulation of politically-powerful natural broadband monopolies which avoid genuine price competition (even with the rise of streaming) like the plague, that's not happening anytime soon.

And while consumers can cut the cord and switch to streaming alternatives, we've already seen heavy-handed efforts on the streaming front as well. In its fight with Cablevision in 2010, News Corporation went so far as to get Hulu to block Cablevision broadband customers from accessing all Fox content. Viacom did something similar in 2014 when it blocked all CableONE broadband customers from accessing Viacom content online, even if those broadband users were paying for TV from another provider.

There's ample room for creativity here where broadcasters (increasingly launching their own streaming services) could attempt to ban streaming customers from accessing this as well via IP range blacklists and other absurd, internet-breaking behavior. In the wake of the death of net neutrality and FCC oversight of cable providers, you can expect this particular problem to get notably dumber before we finally, actually decide to impose a simple rule that lets broadcasters bicker and battle all they like over rates, as long as consumers don't lose access to programming they've already paid for.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 7:20am

    See also health care costs

    If you're going to allow powerful lobby groups to own politicians and regulators then all the fun political battles will be between these power players, whilst in the mean time, consumers (also known as the citizenry) get screwed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 7:23am

    Cord cutting is real, what to do ... hmmmm

    Oh, I know. Charge more! That will certainly solve the problem.

    Their industry is dying and it is mostly their own fault for charging too much. Not sure what their end game is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jason, 4 Jan 2019 @ 7:30am

    I saw one of my local Fox network's "complain to Spectrum before a blackout starts" tickers Sunday night, except I was watching over the air and not on cable.

    I was incensed, and I wrote to the station that night to let them know in no uncertain terms. I actually got a reply back last night but I wasn't in the mood to deal with it. I'll read it tonight when I get home to see how they brush me off with the same "we're only being fair and we need to get the word out" BS that they gave me the last time this happened.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    crade (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 7:38am

    How come every time they decide the market isn't working right and they recognize it's basically because of all the existing layers of corrupt legislation the fix is always to add another layer?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 10:17am

      Re:

      The market is not doing well because the product is too expensive and the customer service is horrible.

      I realize that government regulation gave them the false sense the market would remain that way forever, but the customers are not forced to pay for the less than impressive product and they are leaving.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 7:51am

    The part I still don't get: how are these broadcast fees even a thing? I mean, isn't "giving away your shows for free, supported by ads instead" inherent in the nature of TV broadcasting? How do the broadcasters manage to get away with not only charging for a free product in the first place? (Let alone use this illogic as the basis for the tortured reasoning at the heart of the Aereo case?!?)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Cal Culator, 4 Jan 2019 @ 8:08am

      Re: I'll try to straighten ya out, "Mason Wheeler":

      The part I still don't get: how are these broadcast fees even a thing?

      Copyright / exhibition are property rights because A) cost to make / distribute (yes, even for local TV programs), and B) are valuable and can be sold, are certainly NOT just to be grabbed by anyone who wants a cut of the value.

      I mean, isn't "giving away your shows for free, supported by ads instead" inherent in the nature of TV broadcasting?

      No. See first answer, and take out your assumption that "ads" will pay for all. IF the content were given away for free as you clearly think possible, there wouldn't be any guarantee that the ads you were paid for are left in to be seen, someone else would show theirs instead.

      How do the broadcasters manage to get away with not only charging for a free product in the first place?

      Faulty premise as stated above: CONTENT IS NOT FREE TO PRODUCE. You've been reading Techdirt too long.

      (Let alone use this illogic as the basis for the tortured reasoning at the heart of the Aereo case?!?)

      Again, your notions are wrong because Techdirt is wrong. Those who work and pay for content own it. Period. It is not "free" to make and it is not "free" to grab and share or monetize or otherwise distribute.

      The US Constitution addresses exactly what you don't understand by trying to guarantee that those who work and pay to create have an "EXCLUSIVE" right enforceable in court. It's a primary Right of persons, not optional grant by Congress.

      Since you've somehow failed to grasp all the above in many years at Techdirt, I will fail to straighten you out, so the reward for me is not thrill of educating, but hoots at your incapacity. You're welcome.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 8:31am

        Re: Re: I'll try to straighten ya out, "Mason Wheeler":

        Boy, I sure do love watching FREE FREE FREE TV in my house by using a a simple, and maybe even a bit antiquated (in terms of its current use) rabbit ears antenna!!!

        Ang guess what, I am going to use that antenna to pirate the biggest TV sporting event, the Super Bowl!!!

        Yes you heard that, I am going to watch the game for FREE using an antenna.....

        Go ahead and try to send the copyright police to come get me!!!!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 8:41am

          Re: Re: Re: I'll try to straighten ya out, "Mason Wheeler":

          And yes, I realize that watching TV via OTA broadcast is nowhere near the same thing as transporting their signal across an entire cable network, but according to you and your ilk, if I watch it without paying, I am a dirty filthy pirate.

          Well then I just want you to know how much I pirate free OTA TV using my rabbit ears. Major sporting events, network "must-see" bullshit, or whatever else is on the major networks and on their secondary channels and networks. ALL FREE!!!!!!! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! FOR FREE!!!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 12:53pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: I'll try to straighten ya out, "Mason Wheel

            And do not ever forget that you are a pirate when you get up to use the restroom during a commercial break.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 8:50am

        Re: Re: I'll try to straighten ya out, "Mason Wheeler":

        I am fairly sure Mason means "these channels broadcast their signal over the air for anyone with the right hardware to pick up at no ongoing cost. So how can a cable company like Comcast get away with charging me a fee to receive the same channels?"

        The easy answer is: Because Comcast pays to rebroadcast those channels both from the local affiliate AND the national affiliate, so they pass on that cost to you. Companies like Comcast paying those fees are why the local news station can afford to keep the doors open to broadcast the free version of the signal.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Mason Wheeler (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 9:41am

          Re: Re: Re: I'll try to straighten ya out, "Mason Wheeler":

          I am fairly sure Mason means "these channels broadcast their signal over the air for anyone with the right hardware to pick up at no ongoing cost. So how can a cable company like Comcast get away with charging me a fee to receive the same channels?"

          Almost. What I mean is, "...so how can the broadcasters get away with charging a cable company like Comcast a fee for transmitting free content, so that they have anything to pass on to me in the first place?"

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 9:13am

        IF the content were given away for free as you clearly think possible, there wouldn't be any guarantee that the ads you were paid for are left in to be seen

        I can watch OTA broadcast channels without paying for a cable subscription. If the broadcast channels do not want me to watch their programming without first paying for the privilege, they should tell the government to ban OTA antennas.

        not optional grant by Congress

        You refer to Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution. Good. Let’s go over that, shall we?

        • Article I establishes the legislative branch of the federal government (i.e., Congress).

        • Section 8 establishes the enumerated powers of Congress (i.e., powers that the Constitution grants Congress, subject to the individual rights listed therein).

        • Clause 8 establishes the power of Congress “[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” (i.e., gives Congress the ultimate power to establish and maintain copyright law as it sees fit).

        If a majority in Congress believed copyright as it stands no longer promoted “the Progress of Science and Useful Arts”, they could change copyright until they felt it did. Congress could shorten copyright terms and the courts would likely agree, with little-to-no dissent, that the act of doing so is both wholly constitutional and well within the power of Congress. (Whether the courts could agree on if shortening copyright terms would cause some form of provable “harm” to copyright holders in general, I could not say.)

        Copyright is not a permanence. It is not an “inalienable right”. Copyright in the United States exists as it is because Congress says so—and Congress can change it any way it wants, whenever it wants, because the Constitution says it can. If copyright law were as set in stone by the Constitution as you seem to believe, how was Congress able to extend copyright terms such that the United States public domain stopped growing for decades?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
          identicon
          Cal Culator, 4 Jan 2019 @ 2:58pm

          Re: by securing ... to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right

          I can watch OTA broadcast channels without paying for a cable subscription. If the broadcast channels do not want me to watch their programming without first paying for the privilege, they should tell the government to ban OTA antennas.

          That's just your usual gainsaying to appear that you even can make a counter: is not what I stated, not the law, not the facts, not reality, not sense at all.

          Clause 8 establishes the power of Congress “[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”

          First, it's funny that you're suddenly going to original intent -- as you "SovCits" do. But you're not actually reading the Constitution, you're jumping to this paraphrase:

          (i.e., gives Congress the ultimate power to establish and maintain copyright law as it sees fit).

          Which is NOT borne out by the body of law developed. Also, since whenever, the US Congress signed onto whatever Treaty that was which extended copyright. I don't support that Treaty (exactly, but skip details here), but that's pretty much the operative Law which is current interpretation of the Copyright Clause (not entirely for the worse, but I was skipping that).

          Anyhoo, key words are "securing" -- which means it's an individual Right that Congress is to try and guarantee -- and "exclusive Right to their" which means that NO ONE ELSE has any right as such in one's work. (Oh, just skip fair use that you want to trot out, which must first BE fair, NOT taking content and re-broadcasting somehow.)

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 5:13pm

            Re: Re:

            Shilling for ad corporations now? You're not even trying to fake standing up for the ordinary layman.

            Do remember to breathe once in a while, blue. Your body takes in oxygen, not corporate semen.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 6:26pm

            it's funny that you're suddenly going to original intent

            I went to the original language to determine the original intent. You think you know the original intent because your view of copyright is so strict that it borders on religious dogma.

            you're not actually reading the Constitution

            The literal text of Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution is this: “The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries[.]” Quoting the Constitution means I read at least that part of it.

            Which is NOT borne out by the body of law developed.

            The literal text of Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 says Congress has the power to establish copyright law, which means it also has the power to change copyright law however it wishes. Granted, these days, corporate stooges hold that power by way of shoving money into the pockets of our Congressional delegates, but the principle remains the same regardless.

            key words are "securing" -- which means it's an individual Right that Congress is to try and guarantee

            If Congress so chooses. Remember, the literal text of the Copyright Clause says Congress has the power to secure copyright, not that it must exercise that power “or else”.

            and "exclusive Right to their" which means that NO ONE ELSE has any right as such in one's work

            What it means is no one has any right to create and distribute copies of someone else’s copyrighted works. (Well, that, and derivative works.) That right lies in the hands of the author/copyright holder. But the funny thing is…

            just skip fair use

            …Fair Use allows for the creation and distribution of a work that incorporates part (or possibly even the entirety) of someone else’s work provided that work is a substantial transformation done for the purposes of commentary or parody. (This is a simplified definition, but that should make it understandable for you.) A work such as, say, a CinemaWins¹ video relies on rebroadcasting part of someone else’s work with additional commentary from the video’s author.

            which must first BE fair

            And your definition of “fair” would likely be “less than one percent of one percent of the original work”, given the strictness of your perverse interpretation of copyright law.

            ¹ - Yes, CinemaWins, not CinemaSins. CS is far too negative for my tastes.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 10:20am

        Re: Re: I'll try to straighten ya out, "Mason Wheeler"

        I find it amusing that the paid content shows have ads.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Mason Wheeler (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 12:23pm

        Re: Re: I'll try to straighten ya out, "Mason Wheeler":

        Sorry, no one gets to straighten me out except my chiropractor. And I don't have a chiropractor.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Jason, 4 Jan 2019 @ 8:12am

      Re:

      Agreed. If anything, the local broadcast networks should have to pay to be carried on cable, since it exposes them to a vastly larger audience.

      I don't think they should have to pay much, necessarily, but for sure they shouldn't get to charge for being carried, at least not to the people already within their broadcast viewing area.

      TV stations get wider audiences and more ad revenue as a result and have to do basically nothing, cable companies can charge appropriately for the bandwidth to carry the channels but can make it up in higher subscriber numbers... everybody wins, right?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ShadowNinja (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 10:13am

      Re:

      Greed for double and triple dipping in the revenue that's why.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 8:15am

    Too important to fail, and big has nothing to do with it

    Arrogance to the extreme on both their parts.

    In the mean time, while the dispute is ongoing, the cable company still gets paid, and in the end pony up whatever the broadcasters demand. So both get paid while the consumers get screwed. That is...if they get screwed and don't find alternatives for their TV jones, which could be streaming, or torrenting, or Netflix, or something else entirely which (as cord cutting goes) leaves both the broadcasters and the cable companies in the lurch.

    Funny how these companies think the value of their products/services are a need, rather than a want. Given the state of broadcast news these days, not even that is important, let alone necessary. When the last cable customer cuts their line and doesn't buy an OTA antennae, will the lesson get learned? Somehow, I think not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    got_runs? (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 8:39am

    Cut that cable!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Christenson, 4 Jan 2019 @ 9:54am

      Re: Cut that cable!

      Consumers are paying for something they don't get... and we wonder why cord cutting is a thing, lol!

      And as to retransmission fees: That's a bonkers consequence of copyright -- something broadcast for *anyone* to pick up, free, now you charge for it if it is the cable company broadcasts it further?

      It might make sense if there was a requirement not to remove the ads or not to change the timing. But it was BROADCAST, no license...now furthering the range of the transmitter can be charged for????

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    lucidrenegade (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 8:42am

    Here's where it all went wrong

    In October 1994, the FCC gave stations a choice of being carried under the must-carry rules or under a new regulation requiring cable companies to obtain retransmission consent before carrying a broadcast signal. The retransmission consent ruling gave desirable local stations increased power to negotiate the terms of carriage the cable company would provide, including channel preference.

    So the local stations can either choose must-carry or re-transmission consent when dealing with cable-cos. The former means that the cable-co has to carry the channel, but they don't have to pay to channel owner to do so. The latter means that the cable-co is not required to carry the channel, but if it does it has to pay a re-transmission fee to the station owner.

    Here's where everything goes to hell. The station owner is always going to choose the re-transmission fee option, because must-carry doesn't get them any money. That option means that the cable-co doesn't have to carry the channel, but the station owner knows that people will scream bloody murder if they can't watch their favorite network shows or sports, and the cable-co will eventually have to cave in.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 8:47am

    Tegna's statement:

    We have successfully reached hundreds of deals with cable and satellite providers across the country with no disruption of service, so we are disappointed we could not reach a deal with Verizon.

    Translation:
    "All the other providers caved to our extortion, such a shame Verizon is holding out.

    Additional note: as of last night, the Tegna-Verizon dispute appears to have been resolved.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Vidiot (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 9:57am

    Clash of the titans... Verizon vs. Disney

    Days before the new year, Verizon notified me that they were playing chicken with Disney. The fact that I can't tell you who won (I guess I don't look at Disney-created content on cable) speaks volumes about the true value of Disney's offering.

    Apologies for the length, but here's the threat language:

    "Despite what you may be hearing from Disney, we have been negotiating a renewal agreement to keep their networks, which include those from Disney and ESPN, as well as ABC affiliates in Philadelphia and New York, in our lineup.

    Disney is currently proposing that Verizon pay hundreds of millions of dollars more for its programming, despite the fact that many of its key networks are experiencing declining viewership. In addition to the proposed rate increase, Disney is also demanding we include, and pay for, another regional sports channel, the ACC Network, in order to continue bringing you all the other Disney and ESPN networks we do today. The rising cost of programming is the biggest factor in higher TV bills and we are standing up to networks like Disney, refusing to accept these huge increases.

    We’ve given Disney a reasonable offer to continue providing you access to its networks. Unfortunately, as of today, they have rejected our offers and there is a possibility that we won’t be able to reach an agreement with them prior to our contract expiration on December 31, 2018 at 5pm EST."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 10:41am

    Meh. Cut cable, don't care.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 11:53am

      Re:

      If you ever see an article on the Internet, and you find yourself asking, "Say, should I post a comment making sure everyone knows how much I don't care about the thing the article is about?" the answer is "No." It's always "No."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 11:48am

    I show my mom how to stream shows now

    My mom is in her 60's and since she is not tech-savvy, the easiest way to help her stream what she wants is to do it illegally. No one streaming service provides all of the shows she wants so I went with an unauthorized one. Tech calls are orders of magnitude easier now and the gatekeepers are losing out on their cut due to their greed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 4 Jan 2019 @ 12:05pm

    My wife and I are among those "millenials moved out and old enough to have children" that cable companies seem to believe will reverse the cable-cutting trend. (We don't actually have any kids yet, but we're definitely the right demographic.)

    We don't have cable. Never have. Neither of us sees any real reason to, as between Netflix, Amazon Video, YouTube and free streaming services set up by the various broadcasters, we're not missing anything we actually want to see. And I don't see any good reason why our kids, when they come, would change that calculus.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    DOlz, 4 Jan 2019 @ 1:25pm

    There’s an old saying, “When elephants wage war only the grass suffers”.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2019 @ 4:41pm

    Theres also the current dispute between HBO/Cinemax and Dish Net, and the Latino broadcasting networks like Telemundo and Dish.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    nerdrage (profile), 5 Jan 2019 @ 12:30pm

    We're watching the beginning of the death throes of the cable industry, at least as far as content is concerned. They will have to ratchet back to just being ISPs, and that will be a nasty shock compared with what they're used to. And then 5G hits and delivers another shock.

    Dying beasts tend to lash out chaotically. This will get worse before its all over.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mason Wheeler (profile), 7 Jan 2019 @ 2:31pm

      Re:

      Wait... are you saying you're rooting for cable ISPs to be replaced by wireless phone ISPs? That's one of those "even worse, if such a thing is even possible" scenarios.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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