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McAdams On: Protecting TV Consumers

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts this week implored the FCC to “help protect TV consumers.” He’d written a letter to FCC chief Julius Genachowski urging the chairman to prevent WABC-TV from yanking its signal off Cablevision systems. The two are deadlocked in retransmission talks. WABC is threatening to cut Cablevision off the night before the Academy Awards.

“These are private negotiations, but there’s a public interest at stake,” he said. “Its resolution matters to the consumers who take hard-earned money out of their wallets each month to pay their cable bills and shouldn’t become collateral damage in wars between executives.”

In reality, there are no bodies strewn on Long Island in a firestorm waged by Disney’s photogenic Mr. Iger and the earthy Dolan patriarchy. No one has suffered so much as an inconvenience and it’s unlikely they’ve even noticed this battle royale that has our friends in Washington grumbling and sermonizing like codgers in the Parliament.

The Democratic senator knows this, of course. And he probably wouldn’t care had not one of his Westchester pals called and said, “John, could you be a dear and please tell Charlie and Bob to knock it off. I’m having an Oscar party on Sunday. Tipton is dressing up in a bomb suit and I’m going to be Neytiri from ‘Avatar.’”

The preceding conversation was a dramatization, similar to Sen. Kerry’s battlefield allusion. Both are meant for effect. Had he really wanted to make WABC stay on Cablevision, he could have whipped up a law. Granted, that takes some doing, but it has a bit more gravity than a publicized letter to an appointed bureaucrat. That’s a way for the good senator to appear to be doing something about which he has no intention of doing anything.

But just to make sure he has no intention of doing anything, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas wrote a letter of his own, now don’t think he didn’t. Barton is a Texas Republican, and with all due respect, I wouldn’t play poker with the man even if the alternative involved watching reality TV. He’s got some shift to him, that one, but he does talk like a human being and not some programmed meat puppet like a lot of folks on the Hill.

“The deal is best left between the respective companies... free from government interference or cajoling,” he said in the slightly more formal written word. “The alternative is to ask the government to weight the relative value of carriage and of particular programming. This is a risky proposition.”

I have lived in Washington. I have worked on Capitol Hill. I don’t even want to start imagining what these people watch on TV, particularly what they don’t admit watching.

Barton goes on to make the multiplatform argument. That if WABC yanks its signal, Cablevision customers can get the programming another way. E.g., possibly another pay provider, although most subs now have bundles that include voice service that DBS can’t provide. And overbuilders are still rare in cable TV. ABC isn’t streaming full coverage of the event online, so there’s really only one other way for people to get the Oscars.

Free. Over the air. With an antenna. Not exactly a tragedy of monolithic proportion. I’m with Joe on this one. Let the boys battle it out. They’ll come to some sort of deal, if only temporarily, by Sunday if not sooner. It’s the Oscars. And Westchester County. Duh.