UPDATED: Cablevision Calls Tribune Crooks, Trib Says It’s Getting Bullied

Companies fight it out over retrans—WPIX dark

Another day, another battle in the retrans war. Cablevision subscribers in New York woke up this morning to find that CW flagship station WPIX had gone dark overnight as negotiations between Cablevision and station owner Tribune stalled out. Mets fans are going to be upset about this one. The team plays on Saturday and Sunday. But with a 56-62 record thus far, not being able to see the games might not be a bad thing.

WPIX has the dubious distinction of being the largest flagship network that is not owned and operated by its affiliate broadcast network. It's joined in the blackout by Philadelphia's WPHL, currently affiliated with News Corp.'s MyNetworkTV, as well as WCCT in Waterbury, Conn. (also serving Hartford and New Haven) and KWGN in Denver (both CW affiliates).

As always, the fight centers on retransmission consent—permission granted by broadcast stations to cable operators who want to retransmit those stations' over-the-air signals through their cable packages. Tribune wants to start charging for the privilege (as many of its peers do); Cablevision is balking.

And, also as usual, both sides issued angry press releases lambasting the other for unfairness to consumers. "Tribune was willing to provide Cablevision subscribers access to the valuable programming on these stations while working toward a new agreement," said the station owner in a statement. "Tribune makes a substantial annual investment in local news, live sports and high-quality entertainment programming. Cablevision has never compensated Tribune for the retransmission of its local stations, which are among the most highly watched channels on Cablevision's lineups." 

Tribune said it wants less than 30 cents per subscriber per month—a significant fee, but below the industry average of 33 cents.

Cablevision, too, came out swinging along predictable lines, pointing out that rate increases to the cable company will invariably lead to rate increases for consumers. "The bankrupt Tribune Company and the hedge funds and banks that own it, including Oaktree Capital Management, Angelo Gordon & Co. and others, are trying to solve Tribune's financial problems on the backs of Cablevision customers," the MSO said in a statement. "Tribune and their hedge fund owners are demanding tens of millions in new fees for WPIX and other stations they own."

This is just one of half a dozen high-profile carriage disputes in recent weeks: Viacom vs. DirecTV, AMC vs. Dish and Meredith vs. Time Warner Cable all played out this summer.

UPDATE: Cablevision is now accusing Tribune of illegal activity, saying that the station owner is requiring the cable operator to pay retrans fees for WPIX if it wants to keep carrying Hartford-based Fox affiliate WTIC. "We are pursuing both legal and regulatory options to stop Tribune’s illegal tying and will continue to hold the line on increasing programming costs.”

Tribune has also issued an updated statement, and Adweek has obtained a letter from Tribune to Cablevision offering an extension of the current deal to the MSO so that the two parties could reach an agreement by the 24th (Cablevision declined the extension). Tribune also emphasized its position that the negotiations are "completely lawful."

"All of our retransmission agreements in the past with Cablevision, and the negotiations leading up to them, dating back two decades, have been for all Tribune stations in markets served by all Cablevision systems."

This promises to be an interesting dispute—a requirement that Cablevision pay retrans fees for one network in order to maintain access to another sounds very similar to the current practice among cable network comglomerates of "bundling"—requiring carriage for smaller, less competitve networks in order to secure favorable rates for larger networks. It's not clear that either practice constitutes illegal tying, mind you—but if one does, it certainly appears that both would.

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