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Consumers watch as TV providers battle

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Last week, DirecTV customers like me lost access to a number of Viacom channels, such as Comedy Central, MTV, VH1, Spike, TV Land and Nickelodeon.

Earlier in the summer, Dish Network customers lost access to AMC, IFC and We, all owned by a parent company called AMC Networks.

While the two most prominent current disputes involve satellite providers, cable TV companies have had similar standoffs with media companies in the past.

Your pay-TV provider, whether cable or satellite, has to pay cable networks for the right to pass along their programming. The cable or satellite company generally signs a contract purchasing a package of channels for a certain amount of time. When one contract runs out, a new contract has to be negotiated. Sometimes, that process goes smoothly, and we the home viewers never notice any changes. But occasionally -- and that's what's happening here -- the pay-TV provider can't come to terms with the company that owns those channels on how much to pay. The pay-TV provider loses the right to carry that company's channels until a new contract can be worked out.

This is, of course, a business negotiation between two large companies. I have no idea, as a consumer, whether DirecTV is offering too little or whether Viacom is asking too much. In any case, the consumer will end up paying for any increases.

Even so, the companies try to rally public support and assign blame to their opponents. Each company accuses the other of taking away your favorite channels.

"Viacom is taking its channels away from you!"

"DirecTV is taking Viacom channels away from you!"

I asked Times-Gazette readers to weigh in on the controversy, and got a few responses.

"I hope for the day when you pay only for the channels you get to pick out yourself," wrote T-G web site user welkindance. "Will that ever happen?"

DirecTV is trying to use a la carte access as a talking point, saying it would like to let its viewers choose from among individual channels -- or at least much smaller packages of channels -- when setting up their service. That's something that the program providers like Viacom have strongly resisted in the past, and it's not clear from the stories I've read whether it's a serious point in the DirecTV--Viacom negotiations or just something DirecTV is using to rally public support.

"We have Dish Network," wrote Tim Lokey, "and have been generally satisfied with their service. Though there are some good movies on both AMC and IFC, the loss of these two channels hasn't changed my opinion of the service we receive."

"My girls miss Nick," wrote Lisa George Jorgenson. "I have one SpongeBob addict that has resorted to DVDs .... My oldest loves Victorious and H2O. We are just waiting to see what happens and enjoying the free Encore channels for now." DirecTV has offered its customers temporary free access to the Encore premium channels as compensation for losing the Viacom package.

Web site user craftin_mom, however, is already looking beyond cable or satellite for her programming needs.

"In the not too distant future," she wrote, "we will be investing in a very good antenna."

The transition from analog to digital TV a few years ago means that each of the Nashville TV stations is putting out several different streams of programming. For example, WKRN offers its regular programming but also offers an all-weather channel. WTVF has its regular programming but also offers NewsChannel5 Plus, and so on. If your household has a clear path to the Nashville or Huntsville, Ala., TV towers, and if you're willing to buy a signal amplifier and a rooftop antenna optimized for digital TV reception, you may be able to get a number of channels over the air for free -- just like in the good old days, but with more choices.

Craftin_mom said she already has a Roku box, which I covered in a previous column and which allows programming from the Internet to be shown on TV sets. Craftin_mom plans to buy another Roku box for her spare TV. She says that services like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Crackle, which she can access through her Roku box and her high speed Internet connection, can take the place of cable or satellite in her household.

When DirecTV lost the Viacom channels, it began pointing its customers towards web sites where they could watch favorite Viacom shows like "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" online until the dispute was resolved. Viacom, presumably in response to DirecTV's tactic, began pulling full episodes of some of its shows off their official show web sites for the time being. But it left them on services like Hulu. NOTE: Since the print version of this column was put to bed, some shows have been restored to their official web sites.

The current wave of disputes between pay-TV providers and content creators, unless it's resolved soon, may wind up driving more households to become "cord-cutters" like craftin_mom.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.

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John I. Carney
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John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.