Missing CBS? Time Warner Cable Offers Free Antennas for Frustrated Customers

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The ongoing dispute between Time Warner Cable and CBS has been low on progress and high on finger-pointing and empty gestures. CBS has now been off the air for three weeks for Time Warner Cable subscribers in several major markets, and mostly the two companies have just explained how wrong the other side is. Today, we can add another half-measure to the list of not-exactly-solutions: Time Warner Cable is offering free antennas to customers desperate for their CBS fix.

In an email to customers, the cable operator announced that its subscribers in affected markets such as New York and Los Angeles can pick up a free antenna at a Time Warner Cable retail location, allowing them to receive CBS’s over-the-air broadcast signal. For those not near a Time Warner Cable store, subscribers can get a $20 credit at Best Buy to purchase an antenna.

(MORE: CBS Calls Time Warner Cable Proposal a ‘Sham’)

Though CBS transmits its programming for free to anyone with an antenna, the network and the cable operator are at an impasse over retransmission fees, the money that cable companies pay for the right to send CBS and other broadcast programming directly to customers via their cable box. Time Warner Cable has claimed that CBS is asking for an exorbitant increase in fees, while CBS says Time Warner Cable is the lone cable operator unwilling to negotiate in a reasonable manner. The network tried to prove this point Thursday by announcing that it had negotiated a new three-year deal to carry CBS on Verizon’s FiOS television service. “This deal was reached in a short period of time and CBS has once again achieved fair value for our over-the-air rights,” said CBS exec Ray Hopkins in a passive-aggressive statement aimed at highlighting the alleged obstinance of Time Warner Cable.

There are signs that the icy relationship between CBS and Time Warner Cable may be thawing, though. The two sides have reached an agreement to temporarily suspend the blackout in New York City during debates for the mayoral and city comptroller elections.

August has been a relatively low-stakes month in which to stage a programming blackout, since most primetime shows are airing reruns and none of CBS’s major sports franchises are in season. But the pressure to find a solution will soon be heating up. The U.S. Open tennis tournament begins Monday, and CBS has the broadcast rights to the tourney’s biggest matches. Time Warner Cable’s band-aid solution is to offer blacked out subscribers free access to the Tennis Channel during the tournament, which will air coverage of much of the early rounds.

(MORE: CBS, Time Warner Cable Blackout Drags on As Consumers Fume)

But even that programming challenge is nothing compared to the vitriol sports fans are sure to spew if CBS isn’t back on the air by the time football season rolls around. CBS is set to air six NFL games when the season kicks off on Sept. 8, and it’ll begin airing college football regularly on Saturdays later in September. Both attract big ratings, and it’s unlikely that Time Warner Cable, CBS, or the football leagues would want to deal with the hordes of angry fans a continued blackout would cause. Analysts expect the issue to be resolved before kickoff, but the clock is ticking.