After weeks of negotiations and two deadline extensions, television behemoths CBS Corp. and Dish Network appear to be nearing an impasse that would leave millions without easy access to CBS programs, including "The Big Bang Theory," local news and NFL football.
CBS issued an ultimatum Tuesday to the satellite TV giant: Strike a deal or CBS-owned stations will go dark for Dish customers Thursday afternoon.
CBS has been complaining for weeks about the lack of progress in the contract talks. It said Tuesday that it would not agree to any further extensions and instead would enforce a deadline of 4 p.m. Pacific time Thursday.
If no agreement is reached, CBS said it would yank its station signals in 14 markets around the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and New York.
"The second extension, which protected Dish subscribers' programming over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, was the final one," CBS said. "Unless agreements are reached ... our viewers should be prepared to lose CBS from their Dish systems on Thursday evening."
Dish has about 500,000 customers in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, making it Dish's largest market. Customers in the region could see a disruption in the availability of the two local CBS stations: KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KCAL-TV Channel 9.
Consumers in recent years have been growing weary of the escalating tensions between programmers like CBS and pay-TV companies such as Dish. When the two sides battle it out, viewers suffer. Dish separately has been wrangling with NBCUniversal, which manages Comcast SportsNet channels.
Dish's Facebook page has been peppered with threats by customers.
"After 17 years as customer, I'm gone if Comcast Sports and/or CBS go off for any period of time.....Merry Christmas...Bah Humbug," wrote one miffed Chicago subscriber.
"Dish is actively working to reach a deal [with CBS] before the contract expires," said the Englewood, Colo., company. "There is time for the two parties to reach a mutually beneficial deal."
For nearly six months, the two sides have had on-and-off negotiations for a new contract that covers CBS-owned television stations in the 14 markets.
During the last two weeks, as talks appeared to be progressing, CBS offered two contract extensions for the pact that expired Nov. 20.
CBS agreed to the extensions because it didn't want to anger viewers by removing its signals over Thanksgiving, interrupting an American tradition of turkey and NFL football. The extensions, CBS said, were offered "in the hopes that this would give both parties sufficient time to come to a resolution."
The two sides have been squabbling over several issues, including retransmission fees that CBS collects when pay-TV providers retransmit its station signals. CBS has aggressive goals to boost those fees in the next several years, and Dish has been pushing back.
Dish has been trying to gain digital rights and would like to include CBS as part of a low-cost Internet subscription service that it plans to launch. The two sides have been discussing how best to include the network in that offering.
Another sticking point is Dish's controversial Auto Hopper device that enables subscribers to digitally record prime-time shows and then erase the commercials. CBS, which relies heavily on advertising, and other networks sued Dish two years ago over the ad-skipping technology, which CBS would like to see disabled. That suit is still pending.
Dish has been among the most aggressive of pay-TV companies that are trying to hold a line on rapidly rising programming costs.
CBS said Dish's disputes with several programmers have led to outages of 120 stations, most of them temporary, during the last two years.
Such carriage disputes, and ever-rising pay-TV bills, have been a boon to the growing business of digital antenna sales. Consumers increasingly are installing digital antennas so they can receive over-the-air stations, such as CBS, and cancel their pay-TV subscriptions.
"It's a nice little boost to our business," said Richard Schneider, president of Antennas Direct, a business he started in his garage more than a decade ago. His suburban St. Louis company expects to sell 1 million antennas in 2014, making this its busiest year ever.
"Last month we sold 80,000 units, which was the best month in our company's history," Schneider said. "That's more than we sold during the first four years of our business. And if the CBS stations go dark, retailers will likely be cleaned out [of antenna units] over the weekend."