Stupid Cable TV Retrans Feuds And Blackouts Make Their Way To Streaming TV

from the meet-the-new-boss dept

For the last decade or so, U.S. cable TV customers have been plagued by a steady parade of content blackouts as cable providers and broadcasters bicker over new programming contracts. For the end user, so-called "retransmission feuds" usually go something like this: a broadcaster demands a cable company pay significantly more money to carry the same content. The pay TV provider balks, and one side or the other blacks out the aforementioned content. Consumers spend a few months paying for content they can't access, while the two sides bitch at each other and try to leverage consumer anger against the other guy.

After a while a new confidential deal is struck, customers face a higher bill, and never get any sort of refund for missing content. Wash, rinse, repeat. Over and over again. With regulators largely sitting on their hands as consumers get the short end of the stick.

While some might think the innovative streaming revolution is going to fix stupidity like this, evidence suggests that's not likely. While a different variety of feud, AT&T and Roku have been in a standoff preventing AT&T's HBO Max from appearing on Roku devices. And last week, Sinclair-owned CBS stations were pulled from Hulu completely because the two sides couldn't put on their big boy pants and agree to a new contract without taking it out on paying subscribers:

"Hulu is next in the line of cable providers and streaming services to lose locals due to disputes with broadcasters. Some viewers started receiving scrolling on-screen notices over the weekend, letting them know that their CBS station could be removed from Hulu."

This being Sinclair's particular brand of highly partisan, homogenized disinfotainment, many won't care that they lose access to these networks. Sinclair obviously cares, given that fuboTV, YouTube TV, and SlingTV (Dish Network) removed the company's costly regional sports channels last year from their own streaming lineups, contributing to a $4.18 billion loss for Sinclair in the third quarter. But this sort of stuff is only going to get more common and probably dumber, as broadcasters relentlessly try to extract more and more money from already frustrated consumers during an historic health and economic crisis.

For years, even Wall Street stock jocks have warned that the broadcast industry's relentless price hikes simply aren't sustainable. It's creating a sort of death loop where broadcasters demand more money, cable companies acquiesce and raise rates, and consumers, realizing they're better off skipping TV and reading a book or watching TikTok after several rate hikes each year, finally cut the cord. And while competition from streaming has certainly helped the sector in terms of more flexible choices and lower rates, many of the pay TV sectors dumbest and most self-harming tactics are starting to come along for the ride.

That means a steady parade of rate hikes that erode the value proposition of your monthly streaming subscription, and the routine blackouts and disputes that result in you paying more money for content you can't access. It would be relatively simple for a regulator to bar consumer-harming blackouts during negotiations (or at least ensure consumers are compensated for losing access to content they pay for), but this being a country where consumer protection policy is usually set by industry (which is why there often isn't any), that doesn't seem likely anytime soon.

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Filed Under: content blackouts, hbo max, retransmission, streaming
Companies: at&t, cbs, hulu, roku, sinclair broadcasting


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2020 @ 6:30am

    You must have missed when NEXSTAR also pulled their ABC channels from Hulu at end of Oct.

    Hulu did the right thing, IMO, said fine and just pipes in the ABC national broadcast feed into those local markets, so the viewers can still watching their Dancing with the stars ETC just not the local affiliate programming.

    NEXSTAR is the loser there. Hopefully they do the same with CBS

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2020 @ 6:34am

      Re:

      Oh, and I forgot to add, the best part of that stupid feud was that NEXSTAR was airing the slate messaging 'You may lose this channel because of Hulu call 800..." to EVERYONE who was watching regardless how accessed the station. Apparently, Hulu's customer service blew up with all the callers complaining about it, most of whom didn't even have Hulu and wouldn't be losing it.

      Talk about shady tactics.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        kallethen, 10 Dec 2020 @ 8:10am

        Re: Re:

        Looks like they are doing the same to Dish.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        rkhalloran (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 4:16am

        Re: Re: Tegna/Gannett & AT&T

        The local Tegna-owned ABC & NBC stations have a banner on their webpage about how mean ol' AT&T won't come to terms with them and they've been off the air on DirecTV and AT&T's streaming TV service since Dec 1. I'm on Hulu Live since Oct though, who's jacking my rate up $10 in January, likely for garbage retrans fees like this. Still under half the cost of what we used to pay DirecTV, I'm still ahead. At some point the locals and the conglomerates owning them are going to catch a clue; I can flip to the $10 antenna if I want the local content that bad and they get zip.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2020 @ 6:31am

    The content industry is still holding on to the idea that they can charge almost anything they want and get it because cable was the only way consumers could get that content and would pay whatever the cable company asked. Once other options became available that same content industry rushed to get on board. As soon as streaming started gaining real popularity there was a revenue shift away from cable and toward streaming. Customers buy into streaming channels at prices dramatically reduced from cable rates and the content industry started seeing declining revenue.

    The content industry is still clinging to the old model where they could ask whatever they wanted for their product. But they're slowly finding (or soon will) that their content isn't worth what they think it is. There is too much content so consumers pick and choose rather than subsidize crap they don't want to watch. Even content consumers might have watched on cable because, what the hell, they're already paying for it, isn't worth buying on its own. This will [eventually] cause all of those separate streaming services offered by individual content producers to give up and go back to Netflix, Hulu and other streaming content aggregators with more reasonable expectations in contract negotiations.

    It's happening a lot slower than I thought it would but the writing is on the wall. One day we will get back to actually having content on Netflix, Hulu and Prime that wasn't produced by Netflix, Hulu and Prime. And all of those individual content studio streaming channels will dry up (possible exception: Disney) and beg to be included in the aggregators' lineups.

    Yeah, I'm an optimist.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    BurningWoodchipper (profile), 10 Dec 2020 @ 6:49am

    Don't forget about AT&T and Tegna

    Same deal: Uverse and other AT&T "cable" customers lost the Tegna network earlier this month, and it's still out. In my area, that means BOTH NBC and ABC are off the menu, as Tegna owns the local affiliates for both networks.

    The only reason I even have uverse TV is that it's cheaper to get the package deal for unlimited data, than to get just internet and pay extra.

    Everything's connected.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      rkhalloran (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 4:21am

      Re: Don't forget about AT&T and Tegna

      I dumped DirecTV last month; AT&T's fiber service is (at least for now) uncapped, and Hulu Live is one-third the cost of what I was giving the Deathstar, gets me the locals, and if *they* get in a pissing match over retrans fees, I'm < 3 mi/5 km from the local broadcast towers and a cheap antenna will get me the locals just fine.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        BurningWoodchipper (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 6:08am

        Re: Re: Don't forget about AT&T and Tegna

        If only I lived two block to the east or north - I could get ATT&T Fiber.

        Comcast tore up yards and sidwalks for six months earlier this year, but their fiber service won't start for another 6-8 months in my neighborhood.

        Those are my options: AT&T glorified DSL (uverse) or Comcast "xfinity".

        I have an antenna for each TV in the house, just for the local news and hurricane coverage.

        Everything is interconnected: broadband services, old copper lines, retrans fees, cord cutting, streaming, hidden costs.

        Just imagine if we had to buy oils changes or other services the same way we "buy" internet service.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2020 @ 7:45am

    Pirates unaffected.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    aerinai (profile), 10 Dec 2020 @ 8:16am

    The same, but different

    I think the playing field for content producers (ABC, Sports Networks, Comcast) have all been diminished in this next round of fights. Back in the good ol' days of cable, you bought a package with a 'number' of channels and each package you had to pick your package to find the 10 channels you actually watched... Nowadays, the channel concept is dead. You just get what 'Hulu' has or what 'Netflix' has. Getting rid of the channels concept really helps put the power into the content provider. If ABC, Sports Network X, or whoever else wants to start their own streaming channel and charge $25 a person for the privilege, nothing stops them...

    So I lose access to XYZ show, meh... there's more than enough content to make up for it... and if there isn't, then we cancel that particular provider and move (because no more contract shenanigans!)

    --

    On the Roku side of the house however... that is literally extortion like the good old days and the only loser is the user. Taking away a platform that a user already had access to is a complete jerk move. Just tells me I don't want to buy into their products

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    crade (profile), 10 Dec 2020 @ 9:00am

    "While some might think the innovative streaming revolution is going to fix stupidity like this, evidence suggests that's not likely."

    I would hardly expect the same cable and movie companies, coupled with the likes of AT&T and comcast would bring any improvement to the table.
    But there is still hope; they aren't the only players on the board anymore.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2020 @ 10:40am

    "less-legal" streaming increasing

    This will be the result. With TV, you either had it or you cut the cord and didn't have it. With Internet, when services increase their prices uncomfortably, people will get the content elsewhere or they will get other content.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coises (profile), 10 Dec 2020 @ 10:56am

    The negotiation is the problem

    It would be relatively simple for a regulator to bar consumer-harming blackouts during negotiations

    The blackouts are the symptom -- the negotiation is the problem.

    Rights holders always over-value content. Corporations value control over consumer satisfaction, because they see control as the ability to exploit (frequently imagined) advantage.

    Negotiation for creative works that have already been created and released, or that will be created and released in some other venue regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, is foolish. We need a vast expansion of the compulsory license concept (and a significant shortening of copyright terms) to make this system rational.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dave, 10 Dec 2020 @ 11:52am

    Welcome to our world. Our domestic broadcasters have successfully and permanently blacked out Hulu here in Canada.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Dec 2020 @ 6:00pm

    Rent-seekers gonna seek rent inreases.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ross, 10 Dec 2020 @ 9:22pm

    The NBC affiliate in Denver has off the air on DirecTV for the last 2 weeks over the same kind of pissing match. People might shrug this off more easily if it hadn't resulted in having a Broncos game being completely blacked out unless you had Comcast. Wallow in your cesspool of greed, but don't fuck with people's football, especially during a pandemic when vicarious enjoyment is crucial.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Tanner Andrews (profile), 14 Dec 2020 @ 7:27am

      Re:

      NBC affiliate in Denver has off the air on DirecTV

      Should not prove to be much of a problem. You do have some sort of antenna, right? Even in the backwoods of Denver, there ought to be some TV stations available over the air.

      Obviously, being in the metro DeLand area, we have more over-the-air options than can be readily enumerated. There is no need to have cable TV here, and thus no cause to worry about urination competitions between cable providers and television stations. But even up there, I expect you would be able to view the local affiliate's broadcasts fairly easily.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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