Angry cable subscribers in Fairfax County are swamping stores with inquiries about satellite dishes, even as a county supervisor yesterday proposed a deal aimed at breaking the deadlock between Fox Television and Cox Cable that has kept Fox-owned WTTG (Channel 5) off cable TV in Fairfax since Saturday.
Officials in Fairfax, the only area jurisdiction served by cable giant Cox Communications, said their hands are tied by a 1992 federal law that bars local governments from intervening in cable programming decisions. However, Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence) yesterday urged Cox and Fox to agree to a "cooling-off period" of 30 to 60 days, allowing WTTG programming to resume while the two sides try to resolve their differences.
The impasse began last week when Cox Cable refused a request by Fox to pick up two Fox specialty channels nationwide; in response, the network denied permission for Cox to use the signal from WTTG, effective Jan. 1. Cox provides cable to 260,000 subscribers in Fairfax, who now are dependent on rooftop antennas, rabbit ears or satellite TV if they want to watch Fox programs.
In letters to Gary McCollum, vice president and general manager of Cox Cable in Northern Virginia, and Laureen Ong, who holds the same titles with Fox's WTTG, Connolly wrote that he didn't think Fairfax cable subscribers "should be penalized as you move forward" to resolve the dispute.
McCollum said he would agree to the cooling-off proposal, while Thomas Tyrer, a Fox spokesman in Los Angeles, said the network is considering the idea.
Connolly said the proposal would allow talks to proceed while allowing Fairfax cable viewers "the opportunity to watch the Redskins win in the playoffs and go on to win the Super Bowl." The Redskins host the Detroit Lions in the first round of NFL playoffs Saturday, a game that will be shown on Channel 7. However, the Dallas Cowboy-Minnesota Vikings matchup on Sunday is a Fox broadcast, as will be the Redskins' second playoff game, should they advance.
But more immediately, the dispute is angering Cox Cable subscribers suddenly faced with the loss of their favorite Fox shows--"The X Files," "Ally McBeal" and "The Simpsons" among them.
"I'm kind of incensed by it," said Cynthia Bens, a law student in Annandale. Since she lives in an apartment, Bens said, she cannot receive Fox's over-the-air signal with a rooftop or attic antenna. The dispute is "childish at best," she complained. "It puts pressure on me to go buy a satellite dish and tell them all to jump in the lake."
McLean resident Scott Stapf, who runs a public relations firm, said he was "steamed" by the disappearance of Fox and has begun checking out satellite dishes. "I probably watch a lot more Fox than I really should," said Stapf. "I'll probably end up going with a satellite system if it goes on for more than another week or so. It's just ridiculous. I don't like being held hostage like this."
Larry Elmore, sales manager at the Big Screen Store in Fairfax, reported an "incredible" surge of interest in satellite systems, and "quite a few sales" in recent days. "We were getting three to four times the amount of calls . . . we normally have."
At Sky Television Inc., a Vienna company that sells and installs satellite systems, "the calls are up three times the normal," said owner Jim Koshuta. "I was getting calls all weekend."
At least one national provider has moved quickly to cash in on the dispute. Dish Network, the nation's second-largest satellite TV company, said it will begin targeting disgruntled cable subscribers this week, offering a special package including free satellite equipment and installation. "We sure see this as an opportunity," said Dish spokeswoman Judianne Atencio. "We have a very aggressive marketing plan for the area. We're going to take care of those Redskin fans."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.