CBS and Time Warner Cable bring new tricks to an old TV fight

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Should viewers have to pay $1 or $2 to watch CBS channels? Time Warner Cable and the broadcaster can’t agree, leading TWC to yank CBS channels from its lineup in several big cities. The dispute likely annoys the 3 million subscribers forced to watch Starz Kids fare instead of Dexter or Under the Dome but, for the most part, it’s just a typical fallout between those who make TV and those who deliver it. Except for one twist.

This time around, the broadcaster and the cable company are not just sniping at each other in the media, but are turning to technology to press their point.

In the case of Time Warner Cable, the company is urging CBS fans to try Aereo, a $8/month service that lets subscribers watch CBS and all other over-the-air channels on laptops or nearly any mobile device. It’s also invoked an older technology, telling them to use an antenna to pull in CBS.

CBS, meanwhile, has returned the favor by denying access to Time Warner Cable customers who try to watch full-show episodes at CBS.com.

The new tactics don’t represent a slam-dunk advantage for either side but they do put a spotlight on the growing number of ways that viewers watch TV. They also call attention to the increasing absurdity of an outdated TV business model that forces subscribers to pay more and more for bundles of channels that contain stations they don’t want to watch in the first place.

At a time when all eyes are on Google and Apple to deliver a new type of TV experience, standoffs like the one between CBS and Time Warner Cable are starting to feel archaic.

There have been dozens of these disputes over the years, including Cablevision’s decision to blackout Fox for two weeks in 2010, and the core of the conflict is always the same: The broadcaster says it needs more money to make shows, while the distributor doesn’t want to pass that extra fee on to viewers — that’s the essence of the $1 vs $2 fight over CBS.

But these days, consumers should have a greater say over what content they receive and how much they pay for it — this has happened in the music business, and it’s time for it to happen in the TV and movie business too. A so-called “a la carte” model is out there somewhere – it’s just a question of who will deliver it and when.

In the meantime, viewers who are caught up in the CBS dispute take note that media pundits predict the dispute will last ten days to six weeks — or until sometime before football season starts.

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