Last week, Time Warner Cable raised modem fees. Now it’s blacking out popular TV shows such as “Dexter” and “Homeland” because of a fight over money with the programs’ owner, CBS.
Julie DeRoche looks at it all and gets mad.
She has complained about Time Warner for years – about how her bills keep going up but she can’t choose what programs she gets. She has heard her friends say the same. But as someone who is 75 and lives alone, TV is often her only company.
“I have friends who call and complain and get $2 off their bills, but what are we going to do? We’re a captive audience,” said DeRoche, noting that Time Warner is the only cable company in Gray, where she lives. “They give us what they want, and we have to pay. It’s like they’re standing there saying, ‘Na, na, na-na-na.’”
On Friday, Time Warner dropped CBS-owned pay cable channels — including Showtime, The Movie Channel, Flix, CBS Primetime on Demand and Smithsonian — because of a contract dispute with CBS. That means customers who want to watch those channels can’t, even if they’re paying for them, until the dispute is resolved.
The channels were blacked out on Time Warner systems nationally, including in Maine. Neither side is predicting a quick resolution or saying how much money is at stake.
Time Warner is also blacking out CBS-owned broadcast channels, which air the network’s programs, in eight major cities, and full episodes on CBS.com for Time Warner Internet customers.
Portland’s CBS affiliate, WGME, is not affected by that blackout, said Tom Humpage, the station’s general manager. WGME is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, not CBS.
The blackouts began after Time Warner and CBS failed to renegotiate the contract that allows Time Warner to transmit CBS-owned channels on its cable systems. Time Warner officials said at one point that CBS was asking for a 600 percent increase, while CBS officials called that number “voodoo mathematics.”
Last week, Time Warner irked customers by announcing that the modem lease fee for Internet customers was being raised from $3.95 to $5.99 a month, effective this month. That announcement came just 10 months after Time Warner first imposed those fees, after years of not charging for the modems. The new charge prompted two class-action lawsuits against the cable giant.
Time Warner has 12 million customers nationally and more than 360,000 in Maine. Joli Plucknette-Farmen, public relations manager for Time Warner, said she could not say how many get the premium channels. She said prices for the premium channels vary because they are usually part of a package.
Time Warner is trying to make amends with some customers during the blackout. Customers who subscribe to Showtime and The Movie Channel will get credit on their bills for those channels, Plucknette-Farmen said in a written statement.
The credit will be retroactive to the first day of the blackout, and will be based on the number of days that the channels aren’t available.
Customers will not be credited for the other channels that are being blacked out, she said, because those channels are in packages that change from time to time.
“We do not make it a policy to credit customers for any individual channel change, because the whole package continues to provide value,” Plucknette-Farmen said.
Both the modem fee increase and the blackout of popular channels likely won’t help Time Warner’s image with customers. In May, a report by the marketing research company American Customer Satisfaction Index ranked Time Warner last or near last among its major competitors for cable, phone and Internet.
In the report, 250 customers of each of the eight or 10 largest telecommunications and cable companies were asked about those three areas of service. The survey asked how satisfied customers were with each service, and specifically about things such as service interruptions, online speed, picture quality, simplicity of bills, and the variety of plans offered.
Time Warner came in last among nine companies for TV, last among eight in phone service, and seventh among eight for Internet.
The class-action lawsuits against Time Warner over the modem fees were filed in November in New York and New Jersey, and are still pending. Lead lawyer Steven L. Wittels of New York has said the lawsuit was filed because Time Warner violated its own contracts with customers by imposing the fee.
Recent actions by Time Warner show that it “continues to snub its nose at customers,” Wittels said.
In her written statement, Plucknette-Farmen blamed CBS for the stalemate.
“Our efforts to get CBS programming back for our customers are sincere, and we have offered two proposals to accomplish that, while CBS has offered nothing in return,” the statement read. “We hope they will return to the table to negotiate in good faith on behalf of our customers and their viewers.”
A statement issued this week by CBS said Time Warner “is not negotiating in good faith.” A CBS spokesman declined further comment Tuesday, saying the network would not “negotiate in the press.”
Blackouts have become a common tactic in recent years as cable companies and TV programming producers squabble over fees and revenues. In July 2012, a contract dispute caused a blackout on Time Warner Cable of Portland’s ABC affiliate, WMTW. The blackout lasted 10 days before the dispute was resolved.
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: