The national heavyweight battle between LIN TV and Time Warner Cable has lasted much longer than most experts expected, especially since the best outcome either can hope for in this lose-lose fight appears to be a draw.
It is almost two weeks since LIN, the Rhode Island-based owner of WIVB-TV, Channel 4, and WNLO-TV, Channel 23, took the stations off Time Warner in a dispute over money that it feels it should receive from the cable company. And even if it were to end today, the dispute has been a major blow to CBS affiliate Channel 4, the longtime leader in local news and prime time.
According to sources, Channel 4 may have lost about $50,000 when the Bills' loss to Arizona on Oct. 4 wasn't carried on Time Warner. The sources estimate that -- unless its advertisers are being very understanding -- the station is losing between $100,000 and $150,000 in net revenue per week.
LIN's proposal seeks about $1.2 million per year locally from Time Warner, though it hasn't said whether that is for one local station or both.
The battle already has been a big boost for Channel 4's local news competitors, Channel 2 and Channel 7. With Channel 4 now being watched by only about half the Western New York market, its newscasts are getting even lower ratings than third-place Channel 7 received before the dispute.
In the first full week of the standoff, Channel 4 averaged a 3.1 rating for the 6 p.m. newscast, meaning that 3.1 percent of the 637,000 TV households in the area were tuned in. That's compared with the 9.2 percent of the households watching in the last full week Channel 4 was on cable.
Channel 4 registered a 4.6 rating at 11 p.m., compared with 11.9 the last full week on cable.
With increased sampling by former Channel 4 loyalists, Channel 7 and Channel 2 can be expected to keep those viewers who are impressed.
Meanwhile, with the time it may take for satellite providers or Verizon's FiOs to handle customers who wish to switch from TWC, the loyalty of viewers to Channel 4 and primary anchors Jacquie Walker and Don Postles could soon be just a memory.
Local satellite installers say they have been extremely busy during the dispute. Karl Schmelz, of Intertech, said the company is doing more than 1,000 local DISH installations a week -- its most demand in 24 years and an increase of 50 percent since WIVB came off Time Warner.
Larry Bakeman, co-owner of Satellite Solutions, reported he's doing 75 DirecTV installations weekly, about eight times more than normal. He said the wait is about two weeks, instead of the normal two days.
Despite those satellite figures, Time Warner spokeswoman Robin L. Wolfgang denies that there has been a major impact on customer subscriptions.
"We have seen only an incremental uptick in the number of disconnects above our normal run rate," she said in an e-mail Tuesday. "Since the majority of our customers have been supportive of the stand we have taken during our retransmission negotiations with LIN Broadcasting, we have to believe that the incremental increase could be attributed to the sagging economy, moves, seasonal changes and failure to pay, as is the usual coding for disconnects."
As negotiations drag on, Channel 4 anchors and reporters are losing the good will the station has accumulated for a couple of decades. The audience doesn't care that Channel 4's anchors and executives have no input with LIN, which is fighting the same battle in Green Bay, Wis.; Austin, Texas; Indianapolis; and several other TWC markets.
However, Buffalo is the LIN station with the most Time Warner subscribers, meaning that Channel 4 might be taking the biggest hit.
Viewers are angry with both LIN and Time Warner, but Channel 4 is initially suffering more here because its pain is more immediate. LIN's decision to pull the station couldn't have had worse timing, with the nation's economy going haywire and money for political ads going to competitors. And Channel 4 is now in danger of being off cable during the all-important November sweeps ratings period, which starts in about two weeks.
We probably should have realized that LIN was preparing for a long fight, as evidenced by the partnership it made with the DISH network in hopes of luring TWC subscribers to satellite.
And get ready: The owners of Channel 2 and Channel 7 could face similar problems within a few months or sooner, since its agreements with Time Warner also are about to expire.
If LIN makes a deal with Time Warner, then Channel 2's and Channel 7's owners probably will have it easier. But if LIN waits until another Buffalo affiliate has to make a deal and it decides to pull its channel, the pressure on TWC will increase -- if only in this market.
Channel 2, the NBC affiliate, briefly took the highly unusual step of advising Channel 4 viewers without cable that they can get CBS' popular prime entertainment programming on CBS.com.
That practice has stopped. It required more effort and know-how than a lot of viewers cared to exert, anyway. In the long run, it could be out of sight, out of mind for many CBS shows.
It's a testament to CBS' prime-time power in Western New York that even without half the market some series have outrated NBC and ABC programming here.
When the dispute began, it was hard to envision that a deal wouldn't be made in time for Channel 4 to be back on cable for the Bills game Sunday against San Diego. (To those who have asked, TWC can't bring in the game from Toronto's CFTO because of blackout rules.) No one can imagine what the fallout would be if the Bills make the playoffs and its game is on CBS (NBC gets two wild-card games).
But if the impasse lasts past the NFL season, many local cable viewers will have lost a primary incentive to get Channel 4 -- Bills games. And LIN TV may discover that irreparable harm has been done to its strong Buffalo station.