NIAGARA FALLS —
In a high stakes game of chicken between cable network MSG and the region’s largest cable TV provider Time Warner Cable, the only people losing right now are hockey fans the region over.
The two sides have been unable to reach a new licensing agreement and the result is that MSG and MSG-Plus have been dropped from Time Warner’s cable packages. That means local hockey fans who don’t already subscribe to DirecTV or Verizon FiOS won’t be able to watch the Sabres until the dispute is resolved.
Given the team’s play of late, a respite from the aggravation might not be the worst thing in the world. But their place in the standings notwithstanding, the team’s thousands of diehard fans — and local businesses who depend on their traffic to bolster their own bottom lines — have every right to be upset.
Time Warner has made the argument that it’s trying to hold down costs for its customers and that MSG is asking for too large an increase in the fee Time Warner pays the cable network to broadcast its programming. That would be a noble thing for Time Warner to do, if only it bore even a passing resemblance to reality.
Time Warner, since moving into the Western New York market a decade ago after the collapse of Adelphia, has steadily increased rates and fees for subscribers. These days, the cable and Internet bill has become by far the most expensive utility for many households. A standard package of cable TV and Internet now costs well more than $100.
This latest row with a network isn’t the first. Customers will recall the fight two years ago with the parent company of WIVB-TV, the local CBS affiliate, which resulted in a weeks-long blackout, forcing customers to purchase digital receivers to watch CBS programming, Channel 4 news broadcasts and the Buffalo Bills games that CBS carried.
If Time Warner were sincerely concerned about how much it charges customers, it would reduce the fee for cable TV service in the wake of dropping MSG. We’re not holding our breath for that to happen.
Instead, it has come up with some lame alternatives clearly aimed at placating angry Sabres fans. The company is offering an increased sports package that includes the NBA and NHL networks for free. But for fans who watch every game, a 30-second highlight reel will be of little solace.
Time Warner would be wise to realize that its customers are loyal to the programing they enjoy, not the company that provides it.