Fox Channel 5 suddenly reappeared on cable television in Fairfax County last night after senior executives from both Fox and Cox Cable of Fairfax reached agreement during their first face-to-face meeting since the channel was dropped Jan. 1.
Just after 9 p.m., Fairfax cable subscribers watching the Biography Channel on what had been Washington's WTTG Fox 5 saw the screen shift suddenly to the newest episode of "Greed," Fox Television's million-dollar, prime-time game show.
A brief news release issued by the two companies said the agreement "restores all Cox Cable customers served by Fox owned and operated stations." Officials for both companies refused to disclose details of the deal, citing a confidentiality agreement hammered out during the late-afternoon session.
Not just Fairfax had a stake in the dispute between Fox and Cox, and the blackout on the terms of agreement leave unclear whether similar ones will erupt elsewhere and lead to more blackouts of stations owned by Fox and perhaps other networks. WTTG's cable contract in Montgomery County, for example, runs out next year.
As far as Cox was concerned, "we're thrilled" at the outcome, spokeswoman Ellen East said. "Our customers were obviously our highest priority and they were very upset. We heard from them loud and clear. We don't like to disappoint our customers. We clearly disappointed them in this instance."
Thomas Tyrer, a Fox spokesman, declined to comment. Officials familiar with the deal reached yesterday said it also resolves potential disputes in Orange County, Calif., and Phoenix, where agreements between Cox and Fox were set to expire at the end of this month.
Fairfax officials said last night they were pleased that the two companies found a way to compromise in time for subscribers to watch the Washington Redskins if they advance to the second round of the National Football League playoffs.
Fairfax Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), who had attempted to mediate the dispute this week, said, "It reaffirms my faith in the value of face-to-face discussion. It's a victory for Fairfax County consumers."
The disappearance of WTTG Fox 5 from the Cox Cable lineup in Fairfax County last week marked the beginning of a new and more aggressive chapter in the war over who will decide which TV programs reach into the nation's living rooms in an increasingly digital age.
Will it be the communications companies that provide the hardware, hookups and signals to subscribers? Or will it be the networks and entertainment conglomerates that produce the programs? The silence surrounding the outcome of the dispute in Fairfax County failed to provide immediate answers.
For six days, hundreds of thousands of people in Fairfax--and thousands more in other states where Cox operates--lost access to popular entertainment shows, news programs and sports events they pay to see.
The dispute extended far beyond the here-and-now availability of "The Simpsons" and Redskins playoff games. On opposite sides of the Fox-Cox battle were two competing visions of cable TV's digital future and how best to profit from it.
The struggles stem from a 1992 federal law requiring cable operators to reach "retransmission consent" agreements with local TV stations at three-year intervals.
Fox's three-year agreement with Cox expired Dec. 31. In trying to work out a new one, the network had said it was willing to let Cox show Fox-owned WTTG in Fairfax--the only local area served by Cox--only if the cable company agreed to carry two Fox specialty channels nationwide: Fox Sports World, which features cricket and other international sports, and FXM, which shows 20th Century Fox movies. Cox responded that viewers may not want the two channels, much less any resulting rate increases.
It was still unclear whether the deal reached yesterday includes any concession by Cox to run those two channels on its networks. But before last night's agreement, industry observers said both companies look at that issue from very different vantage points.
Cox, like other cable companies, is rushing to upgrade its 1980s-era systems for digital transmissions, which will open up many more cable channels and allow programming to be tailored to specific markets. Cox had said it was willing to include the two Fox channels on its Fairfax system and in other markets where Fox owns local stations, but it refused to put the channels on all 27 Cox systems, with 6 million customers nationwide.
If other networks follow Fox's lead, Cox had predicted there eventually would not be room for its own services, including high-speed Internet access, digital telephone service and movies on demand. Even with digital service, capacity on Cox systems will still be limited, East said. Fox executives had said that there would be more than enough room on Cox for the Fox specialty channels without affecting the cable company's bottom line or forcing large rate increases. A Fox spokesman said advances in digital transmission will someday allow as many as 1,200 channels on a typical cable system.
With that many offerings, Fox and others might have a hard time attracting large numbers of viewers--and thus, advertisers--unless they have secured a guaranteed spot on cable networks, according to industry observers. "We only sell commercials if people watch us," said Fox spokesman Tyrer.
In making its case this week, Fox had argued that other cable companies have agreed to deals similar to the one it said it wanted with Cox, although it never disclosed details of those arrangements. Locally, cable customers outside Fairfax continued to receive WTTG either because of such deals or because their cable company's agreement with Fox is not yet up for renewal.
Because the Fox-Cox dispute has wider implications, other cable providers watched with great interest and some trepidation. Among them is Philadelphia-based Comcast, which owns the cable companies for Alexandria and Reston, as well as Prince George's and Prince William counties, and is acquiring those that serve Arlington and Montgomery counties and the District.