Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer" cartoon is must-see TV in the Maldonado
In recent days, however, Angelo Maldonado, a DirecTV subscriber, has been having some Dora-like adventures just so his four kids can continue to watch the popular cartoon.
"I have had to literally take my kids to my mother-in-law's house because she has Service Electric and they can watch their channels," said Maldonado, who lives in Allentown. "My kid, the 1-year old, literally wakes up in the morning and asks for Dora."
Nickelodeon is one of 25 Viacom-owned channels -- also including MTV, BET, and Comedy Central -- that have been off air for DirecTV's 20 million subscribers since midnight Wednesday due to a programming fee contract dispute.
Maldonado said the loss of Nickelodeon could force him to break his contract with DirecTV and switch to one of the Lehigh Valley's cable providers, which have stepped up advertising in an attempt to woo satellite customers reeling from the loss of their channels.
Blue Ridge Communications in Palmerton emailed former customers to remind them about its channel selections; RCN Corp.is displaying messages about Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and MTV's "Jersey Shore" on digital billboards along Route 22; and Service Electric Cable TV & Communications of Bethlehem is advertising about its promotion that includes two months of free service and no installation.
Viacom and DirecTV had been in talks over a new contract -- the previous one had been in place for the last seven years -- but could not agree on terms before the deadline last week.
Such issues are not uncommon in the paid television industry as providers struggle to hold the line on costs.
The purchase of television programs is the single biggest cost for distributors, which have fought back in recent years against what they consider unreasonable "carriage fee" increases by content producers like Viacom.
Companies such as Viacom tend to bundle their networks together, forcing distributors to carry lower-rated networks, such as Nick Jr., along with more popular channels such as MTV.
This practice has triggered a debate in the industry about unbundling networks, which would allow customers to choose only the channels that they want to watch.
"We have been very willing to get a deal done, but Viacom is pushing DirecTV customers to pay more than a 30 percent increase, which equates to an extra $1 billion, despite the fact that the ratings for many of their main networks have plummeted," DirecTV Executive Vice President Derek Change said in a statement.
A DirecTV spokesman on Monday said the company has been keeping its rates low because it refuses to give in to such increases.
"The overwhelming majority of our customers understand that and return the favor with their loyalty," said DirecTV spokesman Robert G. Mercer. "In the meantime, we remain in active discussions with Viacom and hope to resolve this dispute as quickly as possible."
This is not the first time a distributor has blacked out Viacom's channels due to a contract dispute. In 2004, Dish Network dropped some Viacom networks after the two sides failed to reach agreement on a new distribution deal. That blackout was short-lived, lasting less than 48 hours.
Paid television providers are always negotiating rates with media companies, said Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research Group of New Hampshire, which tracks the cable industry.
Leichtman said DirecTV's battle is different since it has gone public with a week-long blackout hurting consumers that "signed up with these channels, and now with 17 fewer channels, they could be looking for alternatives."
He cautioned that consumers switching to cable could be thwarted by DirecTV contract cancellation fees.
Cable and satellite providers are being forced to hold the line on costs while competing among themselves as well as consumers resorting to other entertainment like online streaming, Redbox and Netflix.
A similar media company and TV provider brawl is playing out between satellite company Dish Network and AMC. On July 1, Dish Network decided to drop AMC Networks, the company behind shows such as "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead" and "Mad Men," after the two companies failed to reach a new contract.
In the Lehigh Valley, cable providers may reap a windfall from the DirecTV-Viacom battle. Some have reported an uptick in service inquiries and new subscribers in recent days.
Blue Ridge recently shifted some supervisors to help handle an increase in phone calls, Blue Ridge spokesman Joe Lorah said.
As for Maldonado, he's already called DirecTV customer service and mailed a letter to Viacom to express his frustration.
He was unsuccessful in getting restitution from DirecTV, so he said he is ready to break from the satellite provider.
"It's really frustrating and we want to cancel but it's like $250 to cancel," he said. "We've been doing Redbox and stuff like that, but I'm at the point that I'm just going to cancel and take the hit."
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