How much longer can Charter Communications’ Spectrum cable service and Tribune Media remain locked in a fee dispute that has resulted in a nearly weeklong blackout for viewers of Fox 8 Cleveland and a bunch of other stations around the country?
The answer might depend on one word: Football.
Both sides were willing to endure jilted viewers’ wrath last weekend during the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs. But now that only six games remain ahead of Super Bowl LIII, the backlash could become much nastier if the bitterly worded public battle between the companies doesn’t get worked out in time for Saturday’s games. The blackout began at 5 p.m. Jan. 2.
In place of regular programming on WJW, the Cleveland-Akron Fox affiliate, Spectrum customers who turn to Channel 8 see a series of messages laying out the cable company’s explanation for the blackout. WJW is one of 12 Fox stations owned by Chicago-based Tribune in markets where Spectrum operates — but Fox isn’t the only network entangled in the dispute. Tribune also owns or operates 11 CW stations, four CBS stations, two ABC stations, independent WGN and a MyNetworkTV station in Spectrum cable markets.
Three more playoff games are scheduled to air on Fox — two divisional games this weekend and the NFC Championship on Jan. 20. That means Spectrum viewers in traditional NFL markets including Seattle, San Diego, Denver, Kansas City, Milwaukee and St. Louis will join Cleveland subscribers in scrambling to find another way to watch the games if a deal remains elusive. (If the longshot Indianapolis Colts reach the Super Bowl and there’s still no resolution, Spectrum subscribers there won’t be able to watch the game on their Tribune-owned CBS affiliate, WTTV.)
Alas, there are other ways to watch — but that’s not something that a loyal, paying cable subscriber likes to hear:
• Viewers in any market can try to tune in blacked out local stations through a digital tuner and antenna — usually starting around $20 — but Ohio.com readers have pointed out that the signal for Fox 8 Cleveland can be difficult to pick up.
• Smartphone users can stream the football playoffs for free by downloading apps from the the NFL or Yahoo.
• Some subscription TV streaming services such as YouTube TV and Hulu — which require internet access — offer "skinny bundles" that include local or network TV feeds. This makes it possible for Spectrum internet customers to watch Fox on their living room screens despite the blackout.
• Customers of competing cable networks and satellite TV are not affected by the Spectrum blackout. Have a friend with U-verse or DirecTV? Are you on good terms?
Of course, more than football fans are out in the cold. Local viewers hoping to see what the buzz is all about for Fox’s “The Masked Singer” as well as fans of shows such as “The Simpsons” and “Gotham” can’t watch live or even program their DVRs to record these and other programs on the network until the block is lifted.
Meanwhile, an open letter released Monday by Tribune Media CEO Peter Kern frames the dispute as a David-versus-Goliath fight, but pledges, “We will keep working to resolve this situation and we will keep fighting to bring you great content. We want nothing more than to have a good working relationship with Spectrum and to get our channels back on the air at a fair price.”
Spectrum continued to display an informational website, www.tribunefairdeal.com, which says “We don’t think it’s fair that [Tribune is] demanding huge increases, especially since their programming is provided free with a TV antenna, and much of it is available for free on the internet.”