Fairfax County's 260,000 cable subscribers could find themselves unplugged from Fox Channel 5 at midnight Friday, but it won't be Y2K's fault if their TV screens go dark as the new millennium kicks in.
A programming dispute between the Fox network and Cox Communications, which recently took over Fairfax's cable operation, is ticking down to the Friday deadline. If no resolution or extension of talks is agreed upon, Fairfax cable viewers will be without Washington's Fox-owned station, WTTG-TV (Channel 5), as of Jan. 1. That means no cable broadcasts of Redskins playoff games, local Fox news, "The X-Files," "Ally McBeal," "King of the Hill" or "The Simpsons"--to name but a few Fox offerings.
Negotiations between the two entertainment giants continue, but each side is accusing the other of bad faith. If a deal isn't reached by the midnight deadline, Channel 5 will simply "go dark" in Fairfax, according to participants on both sides, leaving rabbit-ear and rooftop antennas or satellite dishes as the only ways to pull in WTTG's signal for nearly 1 million people.
At issue is whether Cox will agree to carry two Fox Television specialty channels--Fox Sports World and FXM, a classic movies station--in exchange for the right to transmit WTTG in Fairfax, which has the Washington region's largest cable system and is the only place in the area where Cox operates.
Officials with Cox posted a warning on their Web site this week telling customers that it is preparing "alternative programming" to run on Channel 5 if a deal is not reached.
"The issue is that Fox would like to force Cox to add programming around the country. They are holding our customers hostage in the Northern Virginia area," Gary McCollum, vice president and general manager for Cox in Fairfax, said yesterday. "We think that's outrageous. We can't be held over a barrel."
McCollum said he hopes to avoid dropping Fox 5 from the cable lineup, but he expressed impatience with Fox network officials. "We thought that this was going to be in good faith, but it's not," McCollum said.
For their part, Fox executives say it's Cox--not Fox--that is holding customers hostage by refusing to agree to a deal that all other cable and satellite television systems in the area have blessed.
Tom Tyrer, a Fox Television Stations spokesman, said the network is asking Cox to carry the two specialty channels only where it offers digital service, which opens up more channels. Cox plans to convert to digital in Fairfax but no date has been set.
Tyrer also said that the deal is not unique and that cable companies often seek out such arrangements because they don't want to pay a per-subscriber fee for the right to carry a broadcast signal.
Fairfax customers, Tyrer said, "are being held hostage by Cox, because all of the other cable operators [and] satellite operators have agreed this is a good idea. We're not asking anything of them that any of their peers don't think is equitable. We don't understand what their position is."
The result of the back-and-forth corporate bickering may be that cable customers in the area's largest jurisdiction will not easily be able to view some of television's most popular shows. The New Year's Day Cotton Bowl matchup, Texas vs. Arkansas, is also being carried by Fox this year.
Then, of course, there's the Redskins. The team made it into the National Football League playoffs this year for the first time since 1991, and the prospect that hundreds of thousands of Fairfax cable subscribers could miss watching those games at home is a concern to everyone involved in the talks.
Squabbles between cable companies and local broadcast stations are nothing new. But rarely has a cable system pulled the plug on a major local station, given the viewer outrage that could erupt.
In recent months, cable system-TV station fights have been further complicated by the serious competition offered by satellite TV companies. Several satellite firms now compete with the region's cable providers, including Cox. And recent action on Capitol Hill allows satellite firms to offer local broadcast channels, such as Fox 5, to their customers.
Staff writer Lisa de Moraes contributed to this report.