Fox-Time Warner appeal to customers as fee feud drags on

NEW YORK: Negotiations on an expiring contract between Time Warner Cable and Fox Broadcasting Co. sparked communications campaigns on both sides and are now flirting close to a December 31 deadline at midnight.

NEW YORK: Negotiations on an expiring contract between Time Warner Cable and Fox Broadcasting Co. sparked communications campaigns on both sides and are now flirting close to a December 31 deadline at midnight. Using television and print ads, Internet, and social media, the two companies are working to promote its messages to customers, as many Time Warner subscribers face losing Fox programs if a deal can't be reached.

The disagreement centers on fees that Fox, run by Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp., is asking Time Warner to pay as part of a 2010 contract. The current agreement expires at midnight, New Year's Eve.

“We launched a campaign to do two things,” said Maureen Huff, senior director of integrated communications at Time Warner Cable. “One was to hear what our customers had to say, and two was to inform them of the difficult decisions we have to make.”

In November, Time Warner revealed GetToughorRollOver.com, which allows customers to leave comments and give their opinion via poll. The site also suggests alternative venues like hulu.com to watch programs in danger of being pulled.

The cable company sent summaries to subscribers informing them of the pending negotiations, and in December began running print and television ads promoting the new site. Huff said her team has also reached out to media bloggers, noting an increase in Twitter and Facebook mentions as the deadline draws to a close.

Fox launched an integrated campaign in November, including a hotline, TV ads, and a Web site, KeepFoxOn.com. The site asks visitors to leave comments, and directs users to providers like DirecTV and Dish Network, which have already renewed Fox contracts.

“We've launched a marketing campaign notifying Time Warner Cable subscribers that they may lose access to [Fox programming],” a Fox spokesperson said in a statement to PRWeek. “We continue to actively negotiate with Time Warner Cable in hopes of reaching a fair agreement and will attempt to keep our viewers informed of the situation every step of the way.”

Media reports have the proposed fee at a rumored $1 per subscriber. Currently, cable providers pay no fee to run programming from broadcast networks like Fox, ABC, NBC, and CBS. A similarly public fight cropped up at this time last year between Time Warner and Viacom. It included pictures of a crying Dora the Explorer, but a deal was ultimately reached before any programs were taken off air.

Brian Schaffer, VP of IR and corporate communications at CJP Communications, said he predicts tough negotiations between cable providers and networks to continue as the economy begins to recover.

“These types of negotiations are going to become increasingly important. They're important in a good economy, but even more so in a bad economy, when each side is trying to assure their customers that they're receiving a valuable service, while still making that service affordable for both the customer and the provider,” said Schaffer, who has worked on retainer projects with Time Warner, Comcast, and Charter Communications in the past.

“Once the two sides come to an agreement, everyone will be buddy-buddy again, releasing press releases together and posturing about how glad they are it all worked out,” Schaffer added. “The posturing is the most entertaining part. There will be these heated arguments, and then all of a sudden they'll be friends again, until three years from now when it's time to sign a new contract.”

The debate reached Washington on December 22, with Senator John Kerry writing to heads of both companies, urging the two sides to come to an agreement. Time Warner CEO Glenn Britt wrote back to Kerry on December 29, saying he welcomed the senator's idea of submitting the dispute to binding arbitration, though as of print time no further moves toward arbitration had been made.

Time Warner's Huff said if an agreement is not reached by the cutoff date, there is a possibility that Fox programs will continue to run as long as negotiations are still ongoing. She said whatever the ultimate decision, customers will be notified via an integrated campaign including postal mail, Internet updates, and television and print ads.

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