The NFL preseason kicked off last night, a joyous occasion for football-starved fans around the country — but also a potentially troubling and frustrating event if you're one of the millions of customers caught in the ongoing spat between CBS and Time Warner Cable. It's a battle over how much TWC should pay CBS for the right to retransmit its content, but all that really matters if you're a football fan is that you might not be able to get your fix.
Most preseason games are carried by local networks, including CBS affiliates in New York and Los Angeles, which means millions of customers throughout this first weekend of action will miss seeing their team take the field. Last night's game between the St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns was unavailable for TWC customers in Columbus and Dayton, while fans in Los Angeles and Yuma, AZ couldn't tune in to the Seattle / San Diego game if they happened to be saddled with TWC service, as well.
Time Warner and CBS better get their little fight overwith before the Browns preseason game on Thursday— Mike Majeski (@mmajeski06) August 7, 2013
Things are about to get a lot worse, too. The New York Jets kick off their preseason action tonight against Detroit at 7:30PM, with the team in the middle of a quarterback controversy — and the only channel carrying it in New York City is CBS 2. When you combine TWC's dominance around the city, the passionate Jets fanbase, and the biggest media market in country, you've got a recipe for a lot of unhappy fans. In fact, a steady stream of tweets are already flowing in — and are increasing in volume as we get closer to game time.
This is hardly the first time a TWC blackout has hurt sports fans in NYC — back in 2012, the MSG network was dropped due to a similar dispute, which meant no one in Manhattan could watch the Knicks. As fate had it, the blackout coincided with the height of "Linsanity" — a particularly hot streak for the Knicks driven by point guard Jeremy Lin. According to The New York Times, governor Andre Cuomo is a big basketball fan and put some pressure on the companies to end their dispute, which stretched on for 48 days.
J E T S let's get it started #jets...If only it wasn't on CBS and I didn't have Time Warner!— Helene Feldstein (@Hfeldst) August 9, 2013
But time Warner (which I fuckin hate) is having a war with CBS so idk how I'm gonna watch the Jets...— Dro-C (@DroCNY) August 9, 2013
TWC is risking the wrath of million of Jets fans tonight
While the Jets / Lions game might be the most visible frustration for football fans, it's far from the only one. Fans in Greensboro, NC and Charleston, SC with TWC won't be able to watch the Panthers tonight; Kansas City residents won't see the Chiefs this evening; and those in Syracuse will miss the Bills game on Sunday. And despite the fact that it's not a CBS network, NBC station WTMJ 4 won't be able to bring the Packers game tonight to fans in Milwaukee due to a similar dispute with TWC over retransmission fees. It's not on the same scale, but that matters little to football fans in Milwaukee.
Somewhat humorously, TWC is actually suggesting that customers in Milwaukee tune into the Spanish-language live broadcast on Telemundo — a desperate attempt to placate its customers. Jets fans don't even have that option, but it doesn't seem like the ire of NFL fans missing the preseason will be enough to push the companies toward a resolution, with CBS saying that negotiations have "gone badly off course."
Up early to start the Rosetta Stone Spanish CD course in case I have to watch the Packers on Telemundo— Steve Palec (@stevepalec) August 9, 2013
"The reality is that missing preseason games is fairly minor," says Richard Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG Research who's been closely following the battle between TWC and CBS. "New Yorkers have options — between Aereo and antennas, there are certainly options to watch NFL without Time Warner Cable." Of course, we'll be talking about "real" games soon. There'll be far more angry Jets fans in NYC if Time Warner Cable customers can't watch the opening kickoff against the Patriots on September 12th, the first Jets game of the season to be broadcast on CBS.
"The reality is that missing preseason games is fairly minor."
But Greenfield believes that by the time the preseason ends, CBS will be forced to cut a deal. "How long does CBS want to be dark," asks Greenfield, "not able to promote its fall lineup in the two biggest cities in the country?" While the blackout might not be hurting either TWC or CBS yet, that matters little to those who want to tune in. Lots of paying cable customers are getting squeezed between two giant media conglomerates when all they want to do is sit down and watch a game that's otherwise freely available over the air.
In the meantime, fans will have to do what they can to keep up with the game, be it resorting to radio, following along on the internet, trying out the NFL's confusing and fragmented mobile app, or just finding a bar or a friend's house that doesn't have TWC. And If you're a Jets fan and don't mind staying up late (or watching the game on DVR), SNY will be running a replay at 1:30AM tomorrow morning — obviously not an ideal time to watch a game, but unfortunately Time Warner Cable customers don't have a lot of options right now.