As we prepare to embark on a new decade, any fans of Fox programming in the U.S. still holding onto their cable subscription could soon be SOL. Hundreds of mid-range and local cable providers with millions of customers between them are locked in 2020 contract negotiations with Fox, and the broadcasting company’s allegedly holding their feet to the fire with price hikes in the double digits and consumer-targeted propaganda campaigns.
That so many contracts are all ending on December 31 is no coincidence: Most of the telecommunications companies involved in this carriage dispute fall under the umbrella of the National Cable Television Cooperative, or NCTC. This Kansas-based nonprofit represents 750 independent cable companies across the country, many of which cater to smaller, more rural populations that lack the resources of industry leaders like Cox and Dish. That’s where the NCTC comes in, pooling together resources for marketing and equipment fees and—most importantly—assisting in negotiations with content providers like Disney and Turner Broadcasting to secure programming on their behalf. It’s the kind of work that allows you to watch Fox News lose their mind over Home Alone 2 from just about anywhere in the country.
Well, it is when things go smoothly at least. Which they most definitely aren’t for 2020’s agreements. And if no deal is reached, those channels go dark for that provider’s subscribers. So no more Fox News, Fox Business, FS1, or FS2.
(Just in case you haven’t kept up with this year’s confusing Disney-Fox merger, here’s a quick refresher: What Disney bought for a cool $US71.3 ($102) billion back in March was 21st Century Fox, giving the Mouse the rights to 20th Century Fox’s films, FX’s TV shows, and National Geographic among other properties. The newly formed Fox Corporation, commonly referred to as “New Fox” or simply Fox, split off from that acquisition, most notably taking with it Fox News, Fox Business, and Fox Sports’ U.S. operations.)
As spotted by Cord Cutters News, several of these cable providers have taken to Twitter and local media outlets to spotlight what they consider to be Fox’s strong-arming tactics. They argue Fox has recently started trying to drum up discontent among their customers via local advertising to coerce them into accepting steep fee hikes. One North-Carolina based provider, Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation, described this increase as nothing short of “outrageous” on Twitter. Several others have claimed these price jumps amount to as much as 10 times the current rate of inflation.
Allo Communications is one of them. A thread posted on Allo’s company Twitter claimed Fox took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, aiming “to scare [Allo’s] customers.” The Nebraska-based telecommunications company reportedly serves roughly 380,000 customers across the midwest.
The ad, as well as the accompanying website it points to, warns cable customers they’re at risk of losing their “favourite Fox networks”—their words, not mine—thanks to the NCTC.
The website, aptly named KeepFoxNewAndSports.com, encourages subscribers to bug their local cable company about accepting the deal, otherwise:
“Impacted customers will miss live news, live sporting events and so much more if the NCTC fails to renew its global distribution agreement with FOX and its members choose to no longer carry these FOX channels,” reads a company statement.
OK, I can’t be the only one who reads that “and so much more” as vaguely threatening, right? That’s something straight out of a cartoon villain’s monologue. At any rate, it’s a far cry from how these proceedings typically go according to Allo.
“Rate negotiations are a pretty standard process in the TV world,” an Allo spokesperson told Gizmodo via email. “What’s not standard are the aggressive tactics being utilised in our communities.”
In a company statement provided to Gizmodo via email, a Fox spokesperson claimed the NCTC is “putting its own business objectives ahead of the needs of its members and their respective customers.” It goes on to say the company offered NCTC-affiliated cable providers temporary agreements to keep carrying its programming throughout stalled negotiations.
“However, the NCTC has directed its members not to talk with Fox in a misguided attempt to fabricate an avoidable crisis,” the statement continues.
But the cable providers affected by these negotiations tell a starkly different story. For them, Fox’s purported price hike is only the latest in a history of skyrocketing rates. Comporium, a South-Carolina based company boasting 134,000 subscribers, claimed their yearly carriage rate with Fox has increased by 800 per cent since 2004.
For reference, U.S. nationwide inflation over the last 15 years clocks in around 30 per cent according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics.
Allo shared similarly staggering statistics on Twitter. In a letter to customers, the Ohio-based Cincinnati Bell Fioptics described how continuing to offer Fox programming would be a struggle because of Fox’s 20 per cent increase in licensing fees for 2020, a local outlet reported. Overall, the provider claimed rates had climbed more than 200 per cent since 2009.
One Tennesse-based provider described Fox’s priority in these carriage negotiations in no uncertain words:
“Fox wants to charge as much as possible for their channels,” said J. Ed. Marston, vice president of the telecommunications company EPB, per a local newspaper. In that newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Fox ran the same fear-mongering ad this week. Other local outlets reported similar ads, though the extent of Fox’s campaign remains unclear.
It’s not the first time the broadcasting corporation has resorted to such tactics. Over the summer, similar negotiations fell through with the nationwide cable provider Dish Network, causing millions of subscribers across 23 states and D.C. to lose several Fox-owned regional sports stations. Afterward, Fox began firing back at the company, releasing commercials blaming Dish for the blackout and encouraging customers to drop their subscription. In one Fox Sports segment, a news anchor lists all the programming customers will be missing until the companies reach a settlement (which, coincidentally, finally happened just last week).
Whether the NCTC achieves the same result remains to be seen. Then again, even with Fox’s bullish tactics, at least one cable provider remains optimistic:
“We’ve been through many channel rate negotiations and in our 16-year history, we’ve never had a channel go dark,” said an Allo company spokesperson. “We’re hopeful for a positive outcome and continued FOX viewing for our ALLO customers.”