All’s Quiet on Carriage Front As Year-End Deals Get Done

Cable operators seem to have ended the year with relatively little of the acrimony that normally comes with expiring content contracts, hammering out several retransmission and carriage pacts with minimal content blackouts.

Most of the major operators managed to eke out deals — Time Warner Cable said it had completed a handful of retransmission deals prior to year-end, as did Suddenlink Communications and Cox Communications. Cablevision Systems, which usually has at least one carriage dispute making headlines before the ball drops in Times Square, ended the year quietly, and even reached new deals ealier in the year with WGN America and Pop, adding those services beginning Jan. 15.

Cable One avoided a retransmission blackout with four Nexstar Broadcasting Group stations in Tennessee, Missouri, Texas and Louisiana by reaching terms before the Dec. 31 deadline.

Most of those operators had extra incentive to get deals done: Except for Cox and Cable One, all are in the middle of a major acquisition. Time Warner Cable agreed to be purchased by Charter Communications in a $78.7 billion deal expected to close in March; and Cablevision hopes to close its $17.7 billion purchase by European telecom company Altice in the first half of the year. Altice closed its $9.1 billion acquisition of Suddenlink in December.

The fairly cordial negotiations were most likely the result of fewer deals coming due by year-end, and the M&A activity, Pivotal Research Group CEO and senior media & communications analyst Jeff Wlodarczak said.

“If people are in mergers, then negotiations go smoothly,” Wlodarczak said. And though it appears that disputes were few, he expects it to “go back to ugliness eventually.”

Perhaps the fight with the most potential for disruption — over AMC Networks’s pact with the National Cable Television Cooperative — ended Jan. 4 without a loss of programming for about 4 million rural subscribers on Jan. 4. The deal ultimately agreed upon, according to the NCTC, included a “significantly lower” affiliate fee increase than first discussed and lacked what may NCTC members had considered the biggest hurdle of all: that operators carry all of AMC, IFC, WE tv, SundanceTV, BBC America and BBC World News on the expanded-basic tier.

The new five-year deal also gives the operators more opportunities to create skinny bundles of programming for customers whi want more choices.

NCTC president Rich Fickle said the new deal, while providing incentives for members to carry all of the networks, allows them more flexibility in what channels they ultimately carry. That was a big win for many NCTC members who feared they would have to make a choice between allocating network capacity for the channels or for high-speed data service.

Fickle said he was pleased with the way AMC handled the talks, saying the programmer was sensitive to issues that were specific to smaller operators. “I think we reached a great creative compromise,” he said. “I think most of the members will accept this.”

Massillon, Ohio-based MCTV had considered dropping the AMC channels but, company president Bob Gessner said in an email, “We will opt in.”