McAdams On: A Retrans Tear
12/17/2010 2:15:16 PM
BEMUSED, BEWILDERMENT: Let me get this straight. The federal government
is eliminating free television service delivered over publicly owned airwaves
while drafting rules to ensure people can pay for it on privately owned
platforms. Am I in the ballpark here?
Perhaps my analysis lacks nuance. I’m the first to admit I could be wrong. OK,
that’s a lie. I’m in the top 15 or so. I just want to make sure I understand
the dynamic that is television obfuscation I mean regulation these days. For I
am but a $imple citizen who doe$ not fully appreciate what the $ubtleties of
On one hand, we have a process to redesignate television spectrum for
subscription-based wireless broadband. On the other, we have a regulatory
initiative to prevent TV broadcasters from pulling signals off of subscription
platforms when carriage contracts end. The latter came about recently after
particularly peevish hissy fit between News Corp. and Cablevision:
News Corp. enforcer Roger Ailes: “Youse gonna pay us for dese TV station
Cablevision ascendant Jimmy Dolan: “I yam not.”
So den News Corp. pulls two Fox stations and a MyNetwork affiliate off
Cablevision systems, see. This deprived the poor Cablevision subscribers of
paying to watch two World Series games between the San Francisco Giants and the
Texas Rangers--teams so wildly popular in metro New York that a U.S. Senator
from Massachusetts stepped in. The same folks also lost the privilege to pay
for “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader,” which pretty much speaks for itself.
The Roger and Jimmy grudge match--a pay-per-view blockbuster, IMHO--was just
the culmination of increasingly contentious retransmission negotiations between
cable operators and broadcasters. Broadcasters started holding out for retrans
fees when cable operators began charging extra for their HD signals. That seems
pretty straight forward. Except that cable operators were a teensy bit
disinclined to pay for something they’d been getting for free, unlike your
typical cable subscriber.
Each side claimed the other was “harming consumers.”
My brow tends to furrow when I read that “consumers” have been “harmed” by the
absence of a TV station on a cable system. First of all, I think--“what’s wrong
with ‘people,’ ‘citizens,’ even ‘voters.’ We sound like a bunch of human Dyson
vacuum cleaners writ large at the Herald Square Macy’s on the weekend before
Christmas.” Oh, right. . .
Relenting the first term brings us to “harmed.” I’ve been in the Herald Square
Macy’s the weekend before Christmas and I can assure you those people have
greater resilience than a swarm of hypoalgesic Ninjas. Yet somehow the same New
Yawkers got a boo-boo when News Corp. yanked a few TV stations from Cablevision
for two weeks. Natch, the govmint has to step in, because it’s easier than
going after banks for trashing people’s credit ratings by occasionally
neglecting to send out automated bill-pay checks.
Nay, it’s much easier to appear a noble guardian of the public interest by
prohibiting $37 billion News Corp. from pulling TV signals from $10 billion
Cablevision. Where, and how, the government belongs in such straight-forward
private business negotiations is beyond me. I thought Washington was all “free
market” this and that.
If I go to the DSW and those one-off A. Testonis cost too much, they don’t go
home with me. End of story. The Honorable Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is
unlikely to step in. Sadly.
So I would think if News Corp. wants too much money for its Fox stations, then
Cablevision doesn’t have to carry them. Of course it would never go that far
because Mr. Dolan doesn’t want his subscriber base to discover the joys of
aluminum-foil origami. Nor does Mr. Ailes, whose company also owns around
eleventy-five of the cable networks on Mr. Dolan’s systems. This is merely
poker with a really big pot.
That the government is joining the game can only mean one thing. All right, it
can mean a bunch of things, but one thing it does indicate is the absence of
competition in the TV delivery business. This is not, as we know from other
regulatory hoo haw, considered to be the case. You got your cable TV, your
satellite TV. Um, yeah, you got those two. And increasingly, your Internet TV,
unless you have Verizon DSL. Then you got your Internet stop-motion TV. There’s
just one delivery system available to all Americans.