The Consumerist reports that there’s a contract dispute afoot in the Nutmeg State. Cable company Optimum has been unable to reach a retransmission agreement with the Hartford CBS affiliate, and as a result, thousands of Connecticut residents are left without access to the news and shows they’re paying for but can’t watch. It’s an irritatingly common story, but this time there’s a wrinkle: The cable company is still directing its customers to watch the network… they just want subscribers to do it online, instead.
Carriage disputes are nothing new, and the tension that fuels them is intrinsic to the way pay-TV works. Cable and satellite companies pay networks a certain fee for every subscriber that receives those networks in their bundle — so if 100,000 customers get a network that’s worth $0.10 cents per subscriber, then the cable company pays the network $10,000 per month.
That’s a reliable revenue stream for the network, which will usually pair it with ad sales and use the two to make money. But as Americans’ TV-viewing habits change, so do the economics. Networks and cable companies both want to make more money, and keep a larger chunk of what they do make. And so fights, naturally, arise.
Usually in a negotiation, there’s some happy ground in the middle… until there’s not. And that’s what’s happening in Connecticut, FierceCable reports.
When a pay-TV company and a network can’t agree on terms, the pay-TV company stops carrying and delivering that network to customers: blackout time. The network vanishes, cable companies and networks loudly and publicly blame each other, and the consumer — who is still paying for TV they can’t watch — is stuck in the middle. That’s exactly where Optimum, its parent company Altice, WFSB-TV, its parent company Meredith, and Connecticut viewers find themselves today.
Pleas from both Connecticut Senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, to both WSFB’s and Optimum’s parent companies appear so far not to be effective.
“We believe that the current impasse does a disservice to Connecticut families and we urge you to negotiate in good faith to bring an end to this blackout,” the Senators wrote in a letter to both companies.
But now it’s 2017, and there’s a new wrinkle in the old fight: just because you can’t get your network over cable anymore doesn’t mean you can’t get it at all, because the internet exists.
CBS launched its All Access streaming channel in late 2014, and added a higher-priced commercial-free tier in 2016. For now, All Access is still basically an on-demand version of standard CBS network programming, though the service is providing some original content to paying users. Last fall saw the first online-only version of Big Brother, and Star Trek: Discovery is slated to premier later this year.
So yes: subscribing to that streaming service will definitely get you access to CBS content. And that’s what Optimum is banking on: if you really want access to a night full of The Amazing Race, NCIS, and The Price is Right, you can pay the network for it directly and bypass them altogether.
It’s win/win for Altice: Optimum will continue charging you whatever rate you’ve been paying, and will avoid having to pay or deal with WFSB at all. And Optimum is also the broadband provider most of its TV customers use, so it gets to keep raking in those sweet internet dollars.
For consumers, however, it’s a less good deal. Signing up for CBS All Access will cost you at least $5.99 a month — and in this instance, that would be on top of your monthly cable bill (for a non-subscriber, it would be instead of cable).
It’s also only a solution as long as the fight between Altice and CBS never gets heated enough that consumers lose access to their work-around and find digital streams also blacked out. That’s something experts have seen and voiced concerns about since 2014, and that only seems poised to grow as internet delivery slowly becomes the predominant way people access programming.