Some subscribers in Maine are outraged over Time Warner Cable’s plan to drop New England Cable News from its channel lineup Dec. 31, but industry observers say the decision ranges far beyond Maine, to the cable giant’s ongoing effort to shed underperforming networks.
The change will affect about 300,000 customers in Maine, leaving some to wonder about the fate of NECN, a regional network based in Newton, Mass.
“I’m ready to scream,” Julie Deroche of Gray said in a phone interview, joining a chorus of angry Time Warner customers who posted similar opinions online. “They are making the poorest change, in my mind. The bottom line is greed. It’s all about money.”
The announcement followed this week’s breakdown of contract negotiations between NECN and Time Warner, which pays fees to cable channels to carry them on its system.
Time Warner Public Relations Director Scott Pryzwansky said the decision was based on several factors, including cost, viewership and unique content, and is final.
“We do not believe NECN represents a good value for our customers,” he said. “We know any channel change we make necessarily makes some customers unhappy.”
Mike St. Peter, senior vice president and general manager of NECN, said viewers will suffer for the decision.
NECN is “actively investing in improving our service to our viewers,” he wrote in an email. “We have negotiated with Time Warner Cable and are very disappointed in their decision, which will result in fewer options and diminished service for their New England customers.”
St. Peter declined further comment.
Steve Donohue, who reports on the cable industry for the online newsletter FierceCable, said Time Warner has aggressively negotiated its contracts with cable and broadcast channels in recent years, leading to many service interruptions and dropped networks. The stalemate with NECN is simply the latest step in the hardball bargaining between the cable giant and content providers, he said.
“Time Warner is looking to cut costs,” Donohue said. “They put networks on notice: ‘If you are not generating strong ratings, we will drop you.’ ”
CHANGES IN NEWS DELIVERY A FACTOR
NECN covers news across New England. It is owned by NBC Universal, which was purchased earlier this year by Comcast Corp., a giant cable provider that competes with Time Warner.
The dispute reflects the changing nature of television news and the way money is generated in the cable industry, said Paul Niwa, associate professor and interim chairman of the journalism department at Emerson College in Boston.
Because of NECN’s 24-hour approach, its viewership is segmented into many factions, and many viewers who turn to NECN for news stream the channel on their mobile devices. That makes it less attractive to advertisers and less lucrative for cable providers, Niwa said.
“This is a national decision from the corporate headquarters,” he said. “How much sensitivity the national entity has for the local systems, we really don’t know. But this is a much bigger deal than just NECN.”
Time Warner customers in western Massachusetts learned this week that they, too, will lose NECN, as did subscribers in parts of Vermont and New Hampshire.
NECN will remain on other cable systems in Maine, including those run by Comcast.
NECN’s Maine news bureau in Portland employs two reporters, Marnie MacLean and Amy Sinclair, who share a full-time job, and photojournalist Dave Brosemer.
MacLean said she is “extremely disappointed that Mainers will no longer have access to NECN. It means that viewers in Maine will no longer be able to see the stories we cover in the state we live in.”
Maclean and Sinclair said they don’t know what the decision means for the future of NECN’s Portland bureau.
“We are sad about it. We have lived and worked in Maine for more than 20 years,” said Sinclair, who is married to Portland Press Herald reporter Tux Turkel. “I love being able to share stories about Maine with the rest of New England.”
CHANGE ‘DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE’
Time Warner is the dominant cable provider in the region, with almost 400,000 customers in Maine and New Hampshire.
Earlier this month, it announced changes to its lineup that included the addition of the news channel Al Jazeera America. Because of the timing of the two changes, some viewers assumed that Time Warner was swapping NECN with Al Jazeera America. But Time Warner spokesman Pryswansky said “adding Al Jazeera America to our lineup on Dec. 6 is in no way related to the decision to drop NECN.”
Al Jazeera America is a U.S. news channel that provides domestic and international news for American audiences. It is based in New York City and operates bureaus in 12 cities across the United States, according to its website.
Will Flagg of Portland was disappointed by Time Warner’s moves, saying he already has enough sources for national and international news and appreciates the local and regional coverage he gets from NECN.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to me, and there’s no real explanation,” he said.
Mohamed Yosuf Mohamed of Portland, an international studies student at the University of Southern Maine, welcomed the addition of Al Jazeera America to his cable package but said he was disappointed when he learned that Time Warner will drop NECN.
“It’s unfortunate that we lose a local channel that covers broad-based New England,” he said. “But the benefits that Al Jazeera provides, as far as a holistic view of the world today in an increasingly globalized world, outweigh that loss.”
At Emerson College, Niwa said viewers in Maine can find NECN online, and the network should survive this setback.
“This will certainly hurt NECN,” he said. “But it’s not like folks in the Time Warner Cable area are necessarily going to be locked out of NECN, as they would have been had this happened 10 years ago. There are many ways to watch.”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: