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CBS Ready to Pull TV Signals in War With Time Warner Cable: Analyst

Broadcaster’s stations in NY, LA, Dallas and five other markets could go dark on MSO July 24

It could be a long, hot summer for Time Warner Cable and CBS, whose contract fight has erupted into a public war of words in one of the biggest TV distribution battles to date.

About 3 million Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and five other markets could lose CBS-owned TV stations on July 24, with the two sides currently deadlocked over retransmission fees. For now negotiations are continuing, with the deadline next Wednesday at 5 p.m. Eastern.

CBS “appears ready to pull signal from Time Warner Cable to achieve what it believes is a fair-market retransmission-consent fee rate as negotiations between the two are stalling,” RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank said in a report Friday.

The Eye, unlike other broadcasters, has never allowed local TV stations to go dark in a contract dispute. But now, CBS is taking a much more aggressive stance as it tries to boost retrans revenue. CBS is aiming to bring in $500 million in retrans fees this year, roughly double 2012.

Time Warner Cable is holding your favorite shows hostage,” CBS says in TV ads that started running Thursday in affected markets, pointing viewers to KeepCBS.com. The broadcaster claims it’s continuing to work in “good faith” to resolve the dispute but warns that “Time Warner Cable might drop CBS from its TV lineup.”

Time Warner Cable, for its part, asserts that CBS is asking for more than 600% what the cable operator pays in retrans fees to independent CBS affiliates in other parts of the U.S. TWC is running newspaper ads in New York, L.A. and Dallas urging customers to “contact Congress” and has its own site at TWCConversations.com with its talking points.

“CBS is driving up the cost of cable TV — charging higher and higher prices for shows they give away for free online and over the air,” the ads say. “It’s time to stand up and say no to broadcasters demanding unreasonable prices.”

SEE ALSO: CBS Comes Out Swinging Against Time Warner Cable in Contract Fight

Currently Time Warner Cable pays between 75 cents and $1 per sub monthly for CBS, which is now likely seeking around $2 per subscriber, according Bank.

Since TWC and CBS last struck their broad agreement in 2008, “We believe there has been a significant ‘re-value’ for broadcast network TV content since that time due to a number of factors including increased VOD and potential TV Everywhere utility, the higher cost of sports programming (especially NFL) and a more competitive distribution environment where demand has increased for quality content,” Bank wrote.

CBS seems to be “massively under-indexing on affiliate fees,” Bank wrote. Despite the Eye’s No. 1 position in primetime ratings, and an average audience six times what is typical for the top 20 cable networks, CBS currently earns monthly fees on par with top cablers, he said.

Other analysts also say CBS is in a strong position to demand more money for its stations, and will use the upcoming National Football League season as leverage in the fight with TWC. CBS-owned stations reach about 25% of Time Warner Cable’s 11.9 million video subscribers (about 3 million) while TWC households account for only 2% to 3% of CBS’s total audience, according to Davenport & Co. analyst Michael Morris.

“We understand that distributors will work to be vigilant about controlling costs,” Morris wrote in a research note. “However, we see them in a significantly weaker position when it comes to retransmission renegotiations with the major station owners… overall, TWC economics are significantly more at risk in a potential disruption.”

But BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield believes the leverage in this battle is far more balanced than in past retrans and programming disputes: “CBS would be making a critical mistake to think it had an overwhelmingly strong negotiating position,” he wrote in a blog post.

A total of 13 CBS-owned stations in eight Time Warner Cable markets are at risk: WCBS and WLNY (independent) in New York; KCBS and KCAL (independent) in L.A.; KTVT and KTXA (independent) in Dallas; WBZ and WSBK (independent) in Boston; KDKA and WPCW (The CW) in Pittsburgh; WBBM in Chicago; WKBD (The CW) in Detroit; and KCNC in Denver.

TWC and CBS also are negotiating carriage terms for Showtime Networks and Smithsonian Channel among other cable nets. However, according to a source familiar with the talks, those deals could be done separately from the CBS TV stations, which are a far bigger bone of contention. Carriage of TVGN (formerly TV Guide Network), a 50-50 partnership between CBS and Lionsgate, is not part of the talks.

The companies’ prior agreement from 2008 expired June 30. They extended it through July 24 while talks continued, but it now appears unlikely that CBS will agree to postpone the deadline again.

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