Let's play America's newest game show, How Screwed Are You? First question: Do you get your television through AT&T's U-Verse system? Yes? And are you a Mad Men fan? Yes? Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner! I mean, a loser! You are sooooo screwed. The cold war between AT&T and Rainbow Media, which owns Mad Men's AMC cable network, is about to go hot -- and you're collateral damage.
Rainbow, which also owns IFC and WE, is trying to hike the rates that AT&T pays for its programming. AT&T is suggesting Rainbow go pound sand. They've been in a standoff for weeks now, with no apparent sign of progress, and their contract expires at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday. Unless somebody blinks, all three channels will disappear from AT&T U-verse at that time...and there's no guarantee they'll be back before Mad Men's fourth season kicks off on July 25.
The threat of blackouts is increasingly common these days as everybody plays hardball over how much distributors (cable systems and the like) have to pay producers (networks). To complicate matters, more and more distributors are getting into the content business themselves, which puts them in a position to deny programming to their competitors. That's exactly what AT&T says is going on here: Rainbow Media is owned by Cablevision, which battles AT&T U-Verse for subscribers.
"It’s unfortunate that Rainbow Media, owned by Cablevision, is clearly not negotiating in good faith, is trying to charge significantly more than the average of what our TV competitors pay for these channels, and is acting in a way that harms competition and limits consumer choice," AT&T said in a press release issued Wednesday. (If you've always wondered what it would be like viewing a giant conglomerate like AT&T as a populist warrior for the little guy, check out the company's new psy-war website.)
These blackout threats often get settle at the last moment, or at worst, after a few days. On the other hand, a similar confrontation between DirecTV and the Versus sports channel went nuclear last year, keeping Versus off DirecTV's satellites for seven months -- erasing an entire season of college football games and most of a season of NHL hockey. Not to scream fire!in a crowded home theater or anything, but Versus is owned by Comcast, a DirecTV competitor. Sound familiar?
Speaking of college football, ABC and Time Warner Cable 's cable system are already exchanging death threats over their expiring contract, which expires on Sept. 2. And if Comcast succeeds in buying NBC and all its cable channels, this stuff will probably seem like kindergarten hair-pulling compared to what follows. Meanwhile, you AT&T U-verse subscribers might want to start kissing up to neighbors with cable if you're hoping to watch Mad Men.