Comms pros: CBS winner of cable blackout messaging battle

CBS communicated its strategic messages more effectively through its month-long contractual dispute with Time Warner Cable, say PR executives.

CBS communicated its strategic messages more effectively through its month-long contractual dispute with Time Warner Cable, leaving the cable TV distributor to focus on rebuilding its image with consumers, say PR executives.

When the two sides settled the conflict on Monday, CBS programs returned to viewers in eight markets, including New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas after a 32-day blackout. While both Time Warner Cable and CBS will have to use skilled communications tactics to win back disappointed consumers, TWC is in the more precarious situation of the two, contends Dean Bender, principal of Bender/Helper Impact.

The reason: TWC has a direct relationship with its customers, and “at the end of the day, CBS knows the viewers will come back.”

The blackout took place because CBS wanted greater payment for its programming and also to own the rights of its digital assets, according to various reports. Specific terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but CBS said it is being fairly compensated and will retain control of its digital content.

CBS representatives declined to comment on the showdown, and TWC representatives did not respond to inquiries seeking comment.

Despite both sides' efforts to get their messages out through media engagement, social media, and paid media, Bender says he thinks neither side was successful.

“Ultimately all the consumer cares about is for them to resolve the situation. The more marketing and advertising they did to get their point across, the more they lost appeal from the consumer,” he explains.

TWC leveraged a wide array of channels, including Facebook, Twitter, customer-facing email, and paid media to aggressively communicate with consumers. The provider will continue to be open with subscribers even after a deal was reached, says Bruce Haynes, managing partner of Purple Strategies, which worked with the cable distributor during the dispute.

Purple Strategies has helped TWC for several years on projects and issues such as the CBS blackout, he adds. It is understood that CBS handled all of its communications for the dispute in-house.

One way CBS expressed its point of view and updated consumers was through the KeepCBS.com website. The portal included a media section with press releases, case studies, and other key information.

At the beginning of the confrontation, neither corporation adequately communicated why the dispute was happening in the first place, says Greg Tarmin, head of the New York office at newly integrated agency PadillaCRT. But with the outcome and facts now in the open, he believes CBS should have control of its digital content.

In terms of communications tactics, Tarmin explains that CBS' use of stars in its radio ads, such as Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother, was a strong choice because it resonated with consumers. It also hit close to home for TWC because the ad told viewers they have a choice in cable companies, he adds.

On the other hand, Tony Telloni, MD of GolinHarris' New York office, says he noticed TWC's ads more often because he heard them on the radio or saw them while watching TV. However, he says social media is one area where the cable provider could have been more proactive in terms of customer service and consumer engagement.

Telloni says the agreement could benefit both TWC and CBS in the long run.

“The digital rights give everybody more opportunity to find a way to work together and monetize content over multiple channels, and ultimately create more content for more people who want it in different formats,” he says.

Mike Valdés-Fauli, president of JeffreyGroup, says content is a major reason why he thinks CBS won the dispute.

“In a battle between content and distribution, the scales are tipped toward content,” he explains. Football was another key factor in the dispute reaching its end, because NFL games are among the most popular programming on CBS.

However, Valdés-Fauli does not think either side will have to answer to negative backlash from consumers because “the public has short memories and doesn't really care about these things.”

A preview of things to come
With more consumer demand for digital programming, battles between networks and cable and satellite providers are likely to become more common, says Doug Spong, president of Carmichael Lynch Spong. He adds that consumers are the ones who suffer during these conflicts, and that reflects poorly on the Time Warner Cable.

Spong says if he was advising TWC, he would tell it to offer incentives, such as access to premium programming for a limited time.

“There are ways Time Warner Cable could use the make-goods and limited-time offers to their advantage and end up getting more subscribers who upgrade their cable packages to premium programming,” he notes.

Illume PR partner Aurli Bokovza, who began her career in the TV industry at USA Network, agrees that TWC faces the “greater uphill battle” between the two companies when it comes to rebuilding its image with the public.

However, she does not think either side was the clear winner of the dispute.

“It was a very public display of mudslinging that made neither opponent look good and ultimately affected customers more than anyone,” adds Bokovza.

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