Tribune preparing for “long battle” in dispute against Spectrum

Image: The Desk

Tribune Media is prepared to drag out its fight with Charter Communications over programming fees as long as necessary, an executive said in an interview this week.

Gary Weitman, a senior executive with the broadcast company, told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that the company is “prepared for a long, protracted battle” if Tribune cannot convince Charter that network programming carried on some Tribune stations is worth an increase in fees paid by the cable company for rights to transmit those channels.

Charter operates Spectrum TV, a regionalized national cable operator that includes areas previously served by Time Warner Cable. Charter acquired Time Warner Cable’s assets in 2016.

Both sides have expressed a desire to solidify a new deal, both before and after Charter/Spectrum’s contract with Tribune Media lapsed earlier this month. But Charter/Spectrum is balking at an increase in programming fees that Tribune Media believes is fair.

Those fees are largely based on programming rights Tribune Media has for local stations that are affiliates of the Fox Broadcasting Network and CBS. The impasse over those programming fees caused Tribune Media to yank its stations from Charter/Spectrum’s cable service on January 2, including stations in major markets that are not affiliated with either Fox or CBS.

The loss of Tribune Media stations in places like Los Angeles (KTLA, Channel 5) and New York City (WPIX, Channel 11) meant Charter/Spectrum customers there were unable to watch the Rose Bowl Parade, which Tribune Media produces, unless they used an antenna or switched to a streaming service like YouTube TV or DirecTV Now, both of which carry Tribune stations in many large markets.

Weitman told the Cleveland newspaper that Tribune Media has heard “from people who are switching providers or getting antennas.” That, in large part, could be thanks to Tribune’s targeted messaging to viewers that they should look for options beyond Charter/Spectrum’s services.

“We don’t believe that Spectrum is meaningfully engaged in negotiations, so it is serious enough that we’ve moved our message to Spectrum customers that they find other alternatives,” Weitman said, adding that his company is also encouraging Charter/Spectrum customers to ask for refunds.

Officials with electronic retailers in the Cleveland area told the Plain-Dealer they’ve seen a surge in interest for antennas over the last week or so. That increase in demand comes less than a few days before Fox stations across the country will air several playoff games ahead of the Super Bowl. In Cleveland, Fox affiliate WGW-TV (Channel 8) is owned by Tribune Media.

That demand could increase in other parts of the country if Tribune and Charter/Spectrum are unable to reach an agreement in time for the Super Bowl, which airs this year on CBS. Tribune Media operates more than a half-dozen CBS affiliates across the country, with the largest serving Indianapolis — a pro football town also served by Charter/Spectrum.

In a statement, Charter/Spectrum said the company was not opposed to a fee increase, so long as it considers it to be fair.

“Spectrum has offered a fair proposal, with fee increases that are well above inflation and the cost of living for the same programming,” a message to Charter/Spectrum customers read on Monday. “We asked to extend the negotiations to reach a fair deal, keeping programming in place. We are very disappointed with their decision to pull their channels, which is negatively impacting our customers.”

Another message aired by Charter/Spectrum said Tribune was “driven by greed” and “pulled their channels from other distributors over the recent years as a negotiating tactic.”

Tribune has engaged in at least two other carriage disputes over the last decade. Its longest was with Dish Network, which resulted in a three-month blackout of more than 40 local channels and WGN America.