More than a week into a corporate dispute that has left thousands of Time Warner Cable subscribers without access to Portland’s ABC station, WMTW (Channel 8), neither side is saying much about how or when it might end.

The only thing that either side is talking about in concrete terms — mostly online — is how it’s the other’s fault. While the negotiations and details of the dispute have been kept private, a battle is being waged over public perception.

“I’d say the comments on our website (from viewers) have been mostly pro-Channel 8, but I think the end result is that people just want us back on (Time Warner Cable),” said Dave Abel, president and general manager of WMTW.

The blackout began early on July 10, after Time Warner and Hearst Television, which owns WMTW, failed to reach a new agreement determining how much money Time Warner will pay Hearst for the rights to carry its stations around the country.

On Tuesday, Abel confirmed that “talks” between the two sides were continuing. He said he is hopeful that the blackout will end “pretty soon.” Time Warner’s Portland-based spokesman, Andrew Russell, also confirmed that negotiations continue, and that Time Warner is “hopeful” that the dispute will end soon.

A long dispute is likely not good for either side, in terms of public perception. Abel said the blackout has created a misconception among some viewers that the station has gone “out of business.”

That’s understandable, since so many people in southern Maine get WMTW only via Time Warner Cable. Without Time Warner, Abel said, his station reaches only 170,000 of the 400,000 households in the Portland-Auburn TV market, through satellite services or over-the-air. Time Warner will not say how many of its Maine customers are affected by the blackout.

The websites of WMTW and Time Warner offered no new information on the blackout Tuesday, only statements blaming each other.

An “FAQ” section about the dispute on Time Warner’s website said blackouts are becoming more common nationally and are caused by “greedy broadcasters” who want cable customers to “make up the difference” for a decline in advertising revenue.

On WMTW’s website, a statement says Time Warner “refuses to pay our station a reasonable fee” relative to what it pays for other channels. It says the blackout was “imposed on its subscribers” by Time Warner.

Time Warner’s statement about blackouts becoming more common is true. In the past two years, more than 40 corporate disputes between cable or satellite services and companies that supply programming have led to programming blackouts.

The dispute between Time Warner and Hearst is not the only one leaving Mainers without TV programming this month. Two major satellite TV providers — DISH Network and DIRECTV — are in disputes with program providers that are affecting millions of subscribers nationwide.

Since July 11, DIRECTV has been unable to provide programming from Viacom networks, which include MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central. DIRECTV subscribers in Maine and elsewhere are missing programs like “The Daily Show,” “Jersey Shore” and “SpongeBob Squarepants.”

Since July 1, DISH Network subscribers have been without the AMC cable channel, which airs the popular series “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” as well as the IFC and WE cable networks.

For three weeks in June, DIRECTV viewers in the Bangor area were without Bangor’s CBS affiliate, WABI. That blackout ended in late June when the two sides reached a new payment agreement.

Because blackouts are affecting cable systems and satellite services, customers can’t really avoid them by switching services.

Robert Mercer, a spokesman for DIRECTV, said a “very low” number of customers have left DIRECTV during its current dispute. He would not say how many in Maine or nationwide had left.

Mercer said he did not have information on how many Time Warner customers in Maine might have switched to DIRECTV during Time Warner’s dispute with Hearst.

He said many DIRECTV customers have expressed support for DIRECTV in its attempts to “keep programming costs as low as possible” by refusing to meet Viacom’s price. Mercer said customers seem to realize that disputes are happening all over the country.

“Most of them understand that if they switch to another provider, they are likely to experience this situation again very soon,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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