Cox Cable of Fairfax ended its transmission of WTTG Fox 5 at midnight on New Year's Eve, refusing to back down in a dispute with the Fox Television network and leaving 260,000 households without a way to watch yesterday's Cotton Bowl, upcoming Redskins playoff games or popular shows like "Ally McBeal" and "The X-Files."
Cox customers who woke up yesterday morning expecting to see the football game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Texas Longhorns discovered the movie "Ernest Goes to School" instead.
Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., wants Cox to agree to run two specialty Fox channels on its systems across the country in exchange for the rights to WTTG and other local Fox stations. Cox, which is owned by cable giant Cox Communications, refused to pick up the specialty channels. Fox then denied permission for the cable company to use the signal from Fox-owned WTTG. Officials for both companies said negotiations have been suspended.
The Fox local signals in Cleveland and suburban parts of Austin, Dallas and Houston also were removed from Cox cable systems there because of the failure to reach an agreement.
In suburban Austin yesterday, Fox rented several large rooms with big-screen televisions to provide a forum to watch the Cotton Bowl for University of Texas fans who could not see the games on their cable systems. Fox said it would do the same in Fairfax if the impasse remains when the Redskins begin their playoff run.
Fairfax residents expressed anger and frustration with the corporate game of chicken that is forcing them to miss some of their favorite programs.
At noon yesterday, N. Curt Bean, a Cox customer, was waiting for the Radio Shack in Annandale to open. The computer programmer from Burke paid $30 for a pair of rabbit ears and a switch that will allow him to use the antenna to receive Fox programs.
"My wife and kids both watch Fox approximately 90 percent of the time, and I watch a lot of sports," he said. "I think it's sad they can't solve this problem. They're acting like children."
The battle between Cox and Fox reflects the dramatic change in the way Americans receive their television programs. Congress recently decided to allow satellite television providers to offer local stations to their subscribers in markets like Washington. For the first time, cable providers face real competition.
Cable companies such as Cox are in the midst of massive upgrades to make their networks capable of digital transmission, a change that will allow them to offer hundreds of channels, high-definition and digital television and high-speed Internet access.
Cox officials say they don't want to be locked into providing the Fox specialty channels when their systems become digital. Fox, on the other hand, wants to ensure that its programming can be seen by television viewers even as technology offers more choices.
Robert Arnold, 33, of Fair Oaks, said he learned about the squabble when he clicked on the television and saw a message from Cox scrolling down the screen. The cable provider has temporarily replaced Fox with the Starz! Family network, which shows movies.
"That's not a good thing," he said. "There's a lot of stuff on there I used to watch. As a subscriber, it does perturb me and make me a little upset. It makes me wonder who's next."
Rich Anderson, 49, of Vienna, said he regularly watches "The X-Files," and his two sons, 9 and 11, love "The Simpsons." But he said he is not all that bothered by what he views as a corporate dispute.
"I like having alternatives," Anderson said. "But I can live without it. We're using cable primarily for the reception. People forget that."
"We pay $13 a month for the basic cable package, and we'll probably drop Cox if they are not going to carry Fox," said Shannon Wigent, 29, a McLean resident. "We'd give it maybe a week. My husband is ready to call today."
Frustrated county officials said they had each received about two dozen phone calls and e-mail messages from angry constituents.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) said she may ask representatives of both companies to come before the board in public session Jan. 10 to explain themselves.
"I would hope that instead of hardening their positions, both sides would negotiate in good faith to find some sort of acceptable position," Hanley said. "I lament being caught up in the national battle of titans. This feels like a bad Dr. Seuss book."
Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock) described herself as "personally devastated" by the loss of Fox and promised to do what she can given the limits of local control over cable programming.
"I am an 'Ally McBeal' and an 'X-Files' addict, and I can't imagine life without those two programs," Bulova said. "I think there will be hell to pay. People are really going to be upset about this. I can tell you we'll be looking for any leverage we might have."
Officials for both Cox and Fox expressed regret at the situation.
Cox General Manager Gary McCollum called Fox's demands "extortion" and said his company will not give in to them, even if it means keeping WTTG off the air indefinitely.
McCollum said he would be willing to run the two Fox specialty channels--Fox World Sports and FXM, a classic movie channel--once the Fairfax system has been upgraded in the next year or so. But Fox wants the cable company to run the specialty channels not only in Fairfax but also on all of its 27 systems in 11 states.
Fox spokesman Thomas Tyrer said his company wants a deal that results in nationwide exposure for the specialty channels. He said all of the other cable companies and satellite television providers that serve the Washington area have agreed to similar deals.
Tyrer said Fairfax customers should blame Cox. In an advertisement in The Washington Post yesterday, Fox said as much, blaming Cox for "depriving you of what you pay them to deliver."
In addition to the popular entertainment on Fox, Fairfax subscribers will lose out on the station's local news coverage, which includes an hour-long newscast at 10 p.m. And Fox will broadcast Redskins games during the playoffs.
At the Giant supermarket in Annandale yesterday, Fairfax resident Brock Meeks, a correspondent for msnbc.com, said he spent the morning on the Internet, looking at the play-by-play for the Cotton Bowl, because he had been unable to get the game on WTTG.
"My wife is a big Redskins fan," he said, "so she's over the top right now."
Staff writer Lisa Frazier contributed to this report.