The Universal Notebook: Caught in the middle of media wars
Last year at this time, FairPoint Communications, our bankrupt phone company, was threatening to disconnect 20,000 Great Works Internet customers (The Universal Notebook, Jan. 18, 2010) after jacking up its line rate for unused fiberoptic cable from $50 a mile to $1,100 a mile and then claiming GWI owed it $3 million.
This year, FairPoint is only threatening to disconnect 1,700 GWI customers, those unfortunate few like myself who receive GWI broadband Internet service over a FairPoint phone line. Last year, FairPoint blinked. This year, given the small number of consumers involved, I wouldn’t be surprised if FairPoint makes good on its threat to cut off GWI once the contract between the two companies expires on Feb. 28.
On Dec. 29, I received an e-mail from GWI informing me that “We have recently been notified that your telephone provider is no longer willing to share their lines. This will likely cause you to lose access to your GWI Broadband Internet service.”
I called GWI to ask whether the warring telecom companies might work out their differences as they did last year. A GWI rep told me “not a chance.”
I then called FairPoint with the same question. I was told the companies “may decide to extend the contract, but no decision has been made.”
In the meantime, I’m told that I should make new arrangements to preserve my Internet access. GWI would like me to make it both my telephone company and my Internet provider. FairPoint doesn’t seem to give a damn what I do. If I am forced to choose between GWI and FairPoint, I’ll probably choose Time Warner. I like having a Maine-based Internet provider, but I’m sick and tired of being a pawn in the games telecoms play.
Time Warner, of course, is currently in a media war of its own, another in which customers are caught in the cross-hairs. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns local CBS affiliate WGME-TV, has been trying to get Time Warner Cable to pay it a dime for every subscriber in order to carry Channel 13.
Historically, broadcast stations have provided their programming free of charge because cable viewers enable them to increase their viewership and therefore charge more for their advertising. But ad revenues are falling for old media, so Sinclair would like to recover some of the lost revenue by charging more for its signal.
Last week, the Time Warner-Sinclair standoff threatened to deny local viewers access to the New England Patriots game, but Time Warner managed to disarm Sinclair by arranging to get the CBS network feed. Suddenly, Sinclair was only holding WGME news anchor Kim Block for ransom, not Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Sinclair wisely extended the deadline for disconnecting Time Warner customers from Jan. 1 to Jan. 14.
My guess is that Sinclair will cave in when it realizes that threatening to pull the local news is not as powerful a bargaining chip as threatening to pull the Pats and "How I Met Your Mother."
You know what would be nice though? If Sinclair just sold WGME and got out of town. Sinclair is a conservative media giant that seems to cause problems wherever it goes. Most of the stations it owns around the country are Fox network affiliates. Only two are CBS affiliates. I’ve felt sorry for the folks at WGME ever since Sinclair acquired them.
But you know who I feel more sorry for? You and me, the paying customers caught in the middle of these needless media wars. OK FairPoint, GWI, Time Warner and Sinclair, so you have contract disputes. Grow up, get your acts together and settle them privately. Stop fighting your money-grubbing battles on the backs of your customers.