by Josie Kafka
The blackout comes after tense negotiations over two main issues: One, how much money CBS would get per subscriber (it’s currently in the $1 range, and CBS wants to move that number closer to $2). Two, whether or not CBS will retain the rights to distribute its content through other media, such as streaming online or via a video-on-demand service like Amazon.
CBS executives pointed out that the network has had no difficulty negotiating agreements with other distributors, including cable companies and satellite companies. Late Wednesday, CBS also posted its highest quarterly profits—ever!—and shows signs of continuing to be a financial powerhouse in the broadcast TV market.
On the other hand, Time Warner Cable (TWC) has been losing subscribers. According to The New York Times, TWC lost 191,000 subscribers in the second fiscal quarter of this year. Although some analysts predicted a loss (albeit not such a large one), the surprising question is where those subscribers are going: DirectTV, often seen as competition to TWC, posted a subscriber loss of 84,000 in the same quarter. Despite the lost customers, both TWC and DirectTV gained revenue, mostly by focusing on encouraging their existing customers to pay more for services.
The blackout is not limited to our TV screens, either. TWC customers like me, who also get their internet service from the company, are currently experiencing blackouts of CBS-owned websites. I checked to see if I could stream Elementary, for instance, and received a blackout message. It is unclear to me who is masterminding the blackout: if it is CBS, they're just making me angry.
If it is TWC, they're making me irate. I pay TWC for access to channels, and while I’m not happy about the blackout, I’m not horrified, either. After all, I’m way behind on Dexter anyway, and Person of Interest is on hiatus. But I pay TWC for access to the internet. That is not the same thing as access to specific channels with which TWC has an agreement. For TWC to blackout certain websites due to their own financial squabbles seems draconian and more than a little unethical. For CBS to do so seems like shooting themselves in the foot.
Billie, on the other hand, is understandably outraged about losing her Showtime. She says, “Time Warner, how could you take the final season of Dexter away from me?? To quote the immortal Peter Finch, I'm mad as hell and I'm (probably) not going to take this anymore!”
Billie is not the only one. Rising costs and access shenanigans are just part of a larger problem for the traditional cable consumer. As ChrisB wrote earlier this year, many TV customers are “cutting the cord.” ChrisB described her own cord-cutting: “[W]e stream the shows we want to watch over our computers, tablets or smartphones. I subscribe to Hulu Plus, Netflix and Amazon Prime. I have also been known to download the occasional show from iTunes. All in, I spend about $20 a month on television, or about half what I would spend on cable.”
I’m starting to take that idea to heart. By coincidence, I just got a flat-screen TV that allows me to hook up my laptop. I streamed all of Orphan Black with nary a problem, and I look forward to even more inappropriately-intense marathoning in the near future. Given that my monthly combined TWC cable/internet bill is the equivalent of four months of electricity, trimming down to Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, HBOGo, and free streaming sounds like a dream.
But while that might be a decent solution for me at the present time, the work we have to go through to find the best and most accessible deal is indicative of the problems in today’s mass media market. The situation is bad enough that even the typically deregulation-happy Republican Senator John McCain is attempting to co-sponsor a bill that would force cable companies to allow viewers an “a la carte” choice of channels. This surprising bit of geek-friendly regulation from a Republican senator is indicative of just how messy the cable situation has gotten.
There is also the issue of accessibility—and I don’t mean when streaming shows go live. I mean closed-captioning. As far as I know, my hearing is just fine, but I live in a quiet apartment building and typically watch TV at night. Since most TV shows have incredibly loud scores, I like to keep the volume turned low out of respect for my neighbors. That makes it harder for me to hear quiet dialogue, especially if it’s in a non-American accent. So I’ve gotten into the habit of watching TV with closed-captioning. (It’s even more like reading!)
However, most streaming services don’t offer closed-captioning: it’s hit or miss with Amazon, pretty good with Netflix, and almost non-existent with network websites. That means people with genuine hearing impairments have very limited choices, which is obviously an ADA issue, but one that no one seems to be talking about much, although recent lawsuits may prove effective.
The TWC/CBS standoff will surely end soon, and it’s not the first time that a cable company or other service provider has gotten into a brouhaha with a media company. But the drastic blackout, coupled with the variety of options available to savvy viewers, might make this dark, Dexter-less weekend something of a turning point for those of us who are thinking about just not taking it anymore.