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McAdams On: A Retrans Tear

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 the situation.

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 signals.”
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.

For now.