Friday, January 1, 2010

All Foxed Up, or Time(Warn'er) for Cable Neutrality

So, I was disappointed last night, after all of the buildup in our local New York and northern New Jersey cable market, and several major ones across the US (including LA, Dallas, Detroit, Tampa, Orlando, etc.),  that Fox 5, our local affiliate, didn't just go black, Sopranos-series-finale-style, at the stroke of midnight, as the ball dropped on Times Square.  The spots were flying back and forth, all hot and heavy, these past few days, with Time-Warner telling us to stand up to Fox and keep cable costs down, with a number to call, and Fox telling us not to lose all their great programing, and giving them their own number to call (what the hell calling these numbers would accomplish is beyond me), and even the satellite services getting in on the act, saying that, since we might lose Fox, this would be a great time to switch from cable.

Not only were we supposed to lose the local Fox Network station's programming, but also Fox's cable stations, including FX, but not including Fox News which makes its deals with cable providers separately.  As tempting as it may be to come out with a snide comment about Fox News being the one channel we could do without, let me admit that I actually do watch Fox News at least as much as I watch CNN and MSNBC.  In part this is because they truly present news in a more lively, attractive, and yes entertaining package (I hope my old mentor, Neil Postman, looking down from his heavenly perch, will forgive me for saying this).  

In part, though, Fox News is unintentionally humorous in that their conservative political bias is so obvious, it just makes me laugh.  Now again, let me admit that I do not engage in a blanket rejection of conservatism.  I consider myself independent with liberal leanings, and much sympathy for the old conservative Democratic orientation of John F. Kennedy and Henry "Scoop" Jackson, and yes, the much maligned, unfairly, Joe Lieberman.  I also can appreciate the intellectual conservative commentary of individuals like the late William F. Buckley, Jr., and George Will.  And I respect conservative politicians like John McCain, as opposed to the mean-spirited conservatism of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, the teabagging protesters, and the folks at Fox News, for the most part (not Geraldo Rivera, though).

But I digress, although there's some relevance to my digression.  Without knowing any of the details about the conflict between Time Warner Cable and Fox, my immediate assessment was that Fox was at fault.  Not only does Fox lose credibility for their blatant politicization of journalism, but I have seen how MySpace has gone downhill since their takeover of the social networking site, adding an obnoxious amount of advertising in an attempt to increase profits, cutting down on customer service, and ignoring the needs and feedback of the site's users in their additions and revisions to MySpace.  Simply put, they have been squandering one of the net's great resources.  As for News Corp. (Fox's parent company) owner, Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch, his reputation for aggressive business practices is well known.

On the other side, my feelings about Time Warner are essentially neutral.  The old Time-Life company was a paradigm of Protestant propriety, with a keen sense of journalistic integrity. And good old Warner Brothers was one of the great old Jewish Hollywood movie  studios.  Their wedding involved quite the clash of cultures, with the Warner side winning out in the end.

So, reading up on the dispute, my understanding is that outfits like Fox get some 25¢ per subscriber from cable companies, and now Fox wants Time Warner to pay them $1 per subscriber.  That's only a, hmmm, 400% increase (or is it 300%, suffice it to say it's a lot)!  Fox says it's because of declining ad revenues, and no doubt that is the case and maybe some increase is justified.  But you know that's just going to get passed on to us, the consumers.  And Time Warner Cable reasonably argues that if they give in to Fox, all of the other channels are going to want big increases as well!

So, cry me a river, Fox, but I can live without you.  I'll miss Fringe, it's entertaining, but not a necessity.  As for 24, I'll get the episodes online, okay?

In the meantime, Cablevision, another local cable company, has dropped Scripps Networks, which means Food Network and HGTV, over a similar kind of dispute.  Since food programs, and home and gardening shows, are not high up on my list of preferred television viewing, I wouldn't mind if they disappeared from Time Warner Cable (not that they are). 

Now, as it turns out, the screen didn't go black at midnight, and Fox is still on Time Warner Cable this first day of the new year.  And as I said, I'm disappointed.  Not only because it would have been a novel and dramatic development, a kind of apocalyptic development in the otherwise trivial world of television, if you like, but also because it would call attention to a sector of communications badly in need of reform.

You see, the Federal Communications Commission has regulatory authority over the airwaves, but has little if any power over cable (can you say public/community access?), which is wired, not wireless.  Cable mostly has to deal with local governments that control the laying of cables above ground and below the streets.  This tends to result in local monopolies for cable companies, albeit with localities being divided up among cable companies in some instances.

You see, the cable companies are allowed to function as virtual monopolies, local monopolies, and that should require some responsibility to the public.  But they're also allowed to function as private companies with little obligation to the public.  While there is some competition coming from satellite TV and fiber optic networks via telephone companies, these too function as cable companies by other means, without requirements to serve the public interest.

So, things need to change, we need a more sensible system that serves the public and works within a (relatively) free market economy.  I see two possible solutions.

One would be to allow competition everywhere, just as we did with the telephone companies.  Give me a choice between Time Warner, Cablevision, and any other cable company that wants to operate in this area.  Competition would assure that the prices charged to cable consumers are indeed fair.  And if Time Warner doesn't carry Fox, and that really matters to me, then I can switch to a company that carries Fox and (presumably) pays more.  This is the obvious solution, but not the best, because it might result in my having to choose between one company that carries Fox, say, and another that carries Disney/ABC, and there would be no way to get both.

Which brings me to the second, better option, to make cable companies into common carriers, like internet providers and telephone companies.   Let them take their cut, but let us purchase what we want, either by subscribing to the channel, or paying for a specific program (on demand-style).  Right now I get hundreds of channels I never watch!  Who needs them!  Or let the cable company or program provider offer packages, if they want.  But it's time to move to a new model for the distribution of television content, and time to extend the concept of net neutrality to cable (and other) television systems.

Call it cable neutrality, if you like.

And now, fade to black.

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