First, the big picture, courtesy of Thursday’s Wall Street Journal:
“For the full year, Time Warner Cable lost 833,000 video customers in 2013, compared with a loss of 532,000 the year earlier. … On a conference call with analysts, Time Warner Cable Chief Financial Officer Artie Minson acknowledged that last year’s subscriber results were ‘dismal.’”
Now the little picture, straight from Page One of Friday’s Press Herald:
“Time Warner says it couldn’t reach an agreement with the civic center to reinstall its fiber cable in the arena, leaving the Maine Public Broadcasting Network without a way to televise the Class A boys’ and girls’ (state basketball) championship games on March 1.”
At the outset, last week’s announcement that the plug had been pulled on televised coverage of Maine’s Class A high school basketball finals – a home-grown tradition of the highest order – sounded like a complex story with all kinds of moving parts.
We have the Maine Principals’ Association, which sanctions the annual high school hoop tournament and thus controls the TV rights.
We have MPBN, which pays the principals $15,000 a year to televise the tournament – and in the process gives many a winter-weary Mainer something truly terrific to cheer about.
We have the Cumberland County Civic Center, soon to reopen after a $34 million, taxpayer-funded renovation and already mired in a bruising public-relations battle with its once (and perhaps future) primary tenant, the Portland Pirates.
Finally, we have Time Warner Cable. After seven years of partnering with MPBN to produce the civic center’s high school hoop games, the cable behemoth apparently can no longer be bothered to provide a low-cost community service to the multitudes (also known as me) who currently shell out $170 or more a month for its precious Internet and TV signals.
“We’ve been unable to reach an agreement at this time to continue our partnership with the civic center,” said Time Warner spokeswoman Joli Plucknette-Farmen last week. “And because of that, we have been unable to install our services that MPBN needs to produce and broadcast the championship games.”
Let’s hit the pause button right there.
Before the civic center shut down for its face-lift last year, it had a $10,000 sponsorship deal with Time Warner. In exchange for the cash, the cable company got a sign on the scoreboard, tickets to all events and the opportunity to keep some cable and assorted other production equipment at the civic center for no extra charge.
OK, now push resume.
According to civic center General Manager Steve Crane, six months of talks have failed to produce a new sponsorship agreement. That left Time Warner with two choices when it comes to producing the high school basketball games:
First, it could bring in its equipment, cover the games and then remove the equipment – all for just $200 to cover electricity and other minor expenses.
Or second, it could permanently reinstall its cable and other doodads and pay rent to the civic center for the space it used.
How much rent?
“It could have been as low as $5,000,” replied Crane, adding that even that was subject to negotiation in exchange for a break on the civic center’s own cable bill.
Let’s hit the repeat button: We’re talking somewhere in the vicinity of $5,000 here to put a few dozen hardworking high school athletes, if only for one night, under a statewide spotlight. Is Time Warner, having just announced it will boost capital expenditures by $3.7 billion in 2014, really turning its back on these kids for a paltry five grand?
“I can’t comment specifically on the dollar amount that we’re in discussions over,” replied Time Warner’s Plucknette-Farmen. “But we would be looking for a permanent solution and again, we haven’t reached an agreement at this time.”
Allow me to reboot the question: Can Plucknette-Farmen at least confirm or dispute the minuscule dollar amount cited by Crane?
“I can’t comment on the amount,” she repeated.
What makes this all so irritating is that MPBN’s 35-year tradition of broadcasting high school hoops has long relied on a delicate balance that stretches existing resources to their limit.
While the public network handles all production duties at the Augusta Civic Center, it relies on crews from the New England School of Communications to cover the games in Bangor and, at least until now, Time Warner Cable to help out in Portland.
Take away the Class A finals – the most heavily watched games of the tournament – and what have you got?
“It’s a huge loss,” said Dave Cheever, Maine state archivist, who provides on-air color commentary for MPBN. “We know – and this is something about which MPBN is justifiably proud – that the basketball tournament is numerically the most popular programming that they have at that time of year. We have people who watch simply because they want to see Maine youngsters perform.”
Which is the point, Time Warner Cable. This is not about return on investment or market share or billion-buck mergers (See Bloomberg’s “Comcast, Charter Said to Near Pact on Time Warner Cable Assets”) or any of the other challenges you face as you squeeze as much cash as you can out of your customers (like me) before we hit the “off” button and go shopping for a rooftop satellite dish.
This is about doing right by Maine kids. And in the process, giving people (like me) one less reason to roll their eyes at the mere mention of the words “Time Warner Cable.”
Friday afternoon, I called Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, to see what he thinks of this unsportsmanlike standoff.
Calling himself “the eternal optimist,” Durost said an absolute last resort might be to live-stream the games over the Internet. Not a bad idea considering a couple hundred kids will probably be in the stands doing that anyway.
As for the looming TV blackout, Durost added, “I think there will be something worked out. There’s some opportunity for compromise – if everybody wants to find a compromise.”
And if they don’t?
I’ll vote with my remote: Goodbye, Time Warner Cable. Hello, satellite dish.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: