Las Vegas fans scramble as cable fight threatens Super Bowl

LAS VEGAS (AP) — From the taco bar to the chicken wings, Me Ray Shook has long had the potluck planned for her annual Super Bowl party. It’s how to watch the big game that she hasn’t figured out.

Like tens of thousands of other Las Vegas football fans, Shook and her husband are scrambling to find backup plans as a bitter rate dispute between a cable provider and the local CBS affiliate threatens to leave their TVs dark to Sunday’s championship between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos.

Cox Communications cable customers haven’t been able to watch any CBS programs since Saturday, when KLAS-TV pulled the channel off the Cox lineup after five months of failed contract negotiations.

About 40 percent of all area households pay Cox for TV, internet or phone services, according to market research firm SNL Kagan.

The TV station’s parent company, Nexstar Broadcasting Group, wants the cable giant to pay more to carry its programming. Cox has balked at the costs and says KLAS is “out of line” to seek a threefold rate increase, which they say could ultimately drive up cable bills.

KLAS-TV says their proposal is closer to double current prices and insists that local broadcasters are severely underpaid compared with what Cox pays a channel like ESPN. Both say nondisclosure terms in their contract prohibit disclosing the actual rates.

Cox said Wednesday that it will make “ESPN Deportes” free during the game so that subscribers at least can watch it in Spanish.

Some fans are bypassing the fight by purchasing digital antennas, a modern version of rabbit ears that can pull in local broadcast signals. Others are switching to satellite or Internet-based TV providers or making plans to head to bars, restaurants and casino sports books, which have overlapping satellite systems.

Jeffrey Lonergan, 63, said he found a neighbor with satellite to host his Super Bowl party.

“I think it’s terrible that they hold us hostage,” he said. “I’m mad at both of them that they can’t come to an agreement.”

At least one TV competitor has benefited from the impasse.

“Our phones have been ringing off the hook and our stores have had steady traffic,” CenturyLink spokesman Jason Chan said in an email. “Many of the customers are happy there is competition in the market, as it gives them options.”

Battles pitting TV service providers against content programmers and station owners have become increasingly common. Last year, a record 193 blackouts occurred nationwide, more than double compared with 2014, according to the American Television Alliance. The group lists cable companies among its partners.

Nexstar Broadcasting Group’s fight involves more than a dozen other television stations in Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, Missouri and Virginia. But Las Vegas is the only place where the Super Bowl is at stake.

The battle is playing out in public, even as the two sides negotiate in private.

Each has sent emails to customers urging them to take action against the other. KLAS-TV has aired segments about the dispute and suggested customers abandon Cox. The cable provider has pulled $400,000 in advertising from the station and ran ads elsewhere blaming KLAS.

Frustrated customers just want their programs back.

“I don’t know what the real story is, but I don’t care. We are the victims. They’re trying to use us as pawns,” said Shook, 64. “It’s taking joy out of our lives.”

Shook said she likely won’t put in the effort to switch TV services. She said she only hopes it can be resolved soon, if not for the Super Bowl, than for another CBS program she’s watched since she came to the U.S. in the 1970s from South Korea: “60 Minutes.”

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Associated Press writer Tali Arbel contributed from New York.

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