A dispute between CBS and Time Warner Cable over retransmission fees for its broadcast content has spilled over onto the web, with a blackout of television programming also being extended to CBS’ online properties. In the wake of Time Warner Cable dropping the CBS and Showtime signals in most major markets, the broadcaster has decided to block access to full-episode viewing on CBS.com.
Earlier today, Time Warner Cable removed CBS and Showtime programming from cable systems in markets like New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, Detroit, and Dallas-Fort Worth. That happened after months of negotiations in which the two parties were unable to reach an agreement over fees paid to transmit networks to cable subscribers.
Soon after, reports began to surface from viewers in markets like New York and Los Angeles that affected viewers weren’t able to stream full episodes on CBS’ online property, CBS.com. Instead, the website showed anti-Time Warner Cable ads in the place of full-length programming.
A spokesperson from CBS confirmed the reports with the following statement:
If Time Warner Cable is a customer’s internet service provider, then their access to CBS full episode content via online and mobile platforms has been suspended as a result of Time Warner Cable’s decision to drop CBS and Showtime from their market. As soon as CBS is restored on Time Warner Cable systems in affected markets, that content will be accessible again.
The decision to block viewers from streaming full episodes on the web is controversial, but not unprecedented. Back in 2010, amidst a skirmish between News Corp and Cablevision over retransmission fees for Fox and other networks, Cablevision subscribers were temporarily unable to access videos on Hulu. The popular online video site was put in the unenviable position of blocking viewers at the behest of its corporate parents, but access was quickly restored after a bit of backlash.
It doesn’t appear that CBS is likely to reverse course so quickly.
Over the last several years, we’ve seen a number of these disputes flair up, and when networks and cable distributors can’t reach a deal, it means that the TV networks go dark for a few days, or sometimes weeks. And then, after some time, they come back online again, with the cable companies paying more and generally passing on the higher rates to subscribers.
But in the wake of these blackouts, cable companies frequently suggest other ways their subscribers can access that programming — for instance, through free, over-the-air digital antennas, or by watching ad-supported streams online. (The subtext behind those suggestions is that viewers already have free access to that programming, so like, why should the cable company have to pay retrans fees to bring the content to viewers?)
CBS is taking away one of those options, by restricting viewership through its online property. Of course, the controversial aspect of that decision — and the decision by News Corp to block Cablevision subscribers all those years ago — is that not every Time Warner Cable broadband subscriber also pays for video service.
As a result, CBS is blocking broadband-only subscribers from watching its content, along with those who are paying to watch it through their cable subscriptions.
That’s probably a tradeoff that CBS is willing to make. The number of broadband-only households out there might be growing, but it’s still incredibly small. And besides, they’re not the ones paying CBS’ bills anyway. Even so, cutting them off sets a precedent that we could see other broadcasters follow during the next retrans blackout.