Private negotiations to keep zombies and booze-swilling ad executives on Canadian television have gone public, as AMC Networks Inc. tries to mobilize fans to pressure cable provider Rogers Communications Inc. to reach a new distribution for its flagship channel.
The U.S.-based company – which owns shows such as The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Mad Men – took the unusual step of warning viewers on Sunday night that the AMC channel could disappear from Rogers unless a new deal is worked out. The text announcement, which ran during The Walking Dead, came as a surprise to the Rogers executives who have been trying to piece together a deal for the last several months.
The skirmish highlights the struggle between content providers such as AMC and the companies that deliver their programming to subscribers. As more viewers turn to online alternatives, specialty channels such as AMC and HBO are still able to draw subscribers for their gritty alternative programming – and they are asking the cable, satellite and IPTV providers for more money at a time when television distributors are hesitant to pile on additional costs.
It's one of the main drivers behind media mergers in Canada, as companies such as Rogers and BCE Inc.'s Bell Media unit load up on specialty channels in hopes of controlling the amount of money they must pay for content in the coming years. While the skirmish only affects Rogers customers at the moment, TV customers of Bell, Telus Corp. and Shaw Communications could find find themselves facing similar threats as distribution agreements expire.
Rogers signed its soon-to-expire deal with AMC more than six years ago and provides the channel to about 1.2 million homes. It's the first major Canadian distributor to tackle a new deal with the network. Its deal expires at the end of the month, although it's not uncommon for channels to remain on the air as new deals are negotiated.
"We have no intention of dropping AMC," said Dave Purdy, senior-vice president of content at Rogers. "We're disappointed that they've worried our customers unnecessarily. We know the network has value to viewers and now it's a matter of getting a deal that's good for our customers."
The dispute is about more than price. Sources said the firms are having a hard time agreeing on broadast rights on different devices like tablets, and the addition of a high-definition feed.
Much has changed at AMC since it first came to Canada, but the main change has been its roster of programming. Its shows are considered among the best offered on television, but the companies that broadcast them face peculiar challenges. Chief among them is that while the shows get a lot of buzz, they don't actually attract that many Canadian viewers. BBM Canada's list of Top 30 shows in the first two weeks of February doesn't contain a single AMC offering.
Other broadcasters have expressed concern that too many of AMC's shows are available online, which makes it easy for viewers to skip their network debuts.
AMC decided to appeal directly Rogers customers Sunday night, running a scrolling warning under The Walking Dead warning that they could lose the channel if negotiations break down. Part of the message was a phone number, which directs viewers to leave a message with their cable company supporting AMC.
"We've had a long, productive relationship with Rogers Cable and are proud of the value we've created for them with AMC's high-quality, acclaimed programming," AMC said in a statement. "While we are hopeful we will reach an agreement with Rogers Cable that recognizes the popularity of our programming with their customers, we believe we owe it to our loyal viewers to inform them of the potential loss of AMC and its popular shows."