Saturday, March 13, 2010

FCC It Now

Edward R. Murrow's program, See It Now, encapsulated the power and potential of television in its early years.  Now that TV has matured, and gotten somewhat long in the tooth, so to speak, and its influence is waning in the face of our new (and new new) media, I have to wonder if we are witnessing the industry equivalent of a nervous breakdown, or midlife crisis, or perhaps even its death throes?

I've been addressing these problems, as they relate to the cable industry, in a series of posts (starting with All Foxed Up, or Time(Warn'er) for Cable NeutralityTell Old Pharaoh to Let My Channels Go!, and Ordering TV À La Carte, and just recently, ABC You Later, Cablevision!), and arguing for cable neutrality and the audience's right to choose the channels that we pay for.

Now, in a recent AP report, dated March 10th,  it seems that cable television providers, who have operated largely outside of the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission, and Federal oversight, and very happily so, and with great disdain at the thought of government intrusion on their operations, have suddenly found that maybe the First Amendment isn't as absolute as they were saying it was, and they've called on the FCC for help.  

Satellite services, which do have something to do with the FCC, relying as they do on the airwaves, have joined with cable providers in asking for the government bailout, er, I mean assistance in the face of what they see as big bully broadcasters.

The report appears under the title Cable, sat TV firms ask gov't to stop TV blackouts (I found it courtesy of the Technology Review site), and begins

Cable TV, satellite and other video providers have asked the government to intervene in ongoing fee disputes with TV networks -- big-money conflicts that are expected to escalate this year as more contracts expire.

The most recent showdown left millions of Cablevision Systems Corp. customers around New York without an ABC station at the start of the Academy Awards.

About 15 minutes into the show, a scrolling announcement told viewers that a tentative agreement had been reached.

So, unless the government steps in to protect our precious right to television, we can expect more of the same kinds of incidents that led to millions of Cablevision subscribers missing the opening to the Oscars as performed by Steve Allen and Alec Baldwin.  The root of all this evil is money, of course:

As advertising revenue has weakened, TV networks have begun to demand cash for their over-the-air programs rather than some of the advertising swaps that have been acceptable in the past.

And so it is money that motivates the non-broadcast television industries to turn to politics, making for somewhat strange bedfellows, it seems:

Rising tensions between subscription TV providers and the networks have brought together rivals including Time Warner Cable Inc., Dish Network Corp., DirecTV Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and even a consumer rights group often critical of the companies, Public Knowledge.

The group of 14 companies, consumer and trade groups sent a joint petition to the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday, seeking a change in the way broadcasters give cable TV and other providers permission to carry local channels on their lineups.

Of course, some of the industry convergence that's been going on can lead to somewhat incestuous bedfellows, making things rather awkward indeed:

One company was conspicuously absent from the petition. Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable TV operator, would become a broadcaster if its plan to take control of NBC Universal is approved.

So, it seems that the broadcasters are playing hardball:

The National Association of Broadcasters is not backing down.

"To see billion dollar pay TV companies asking for government intervention to protect their exorbitant profits is just plain wrong," the industry group said in a statement.
The problem, though, is that it's the broadcasters who have the power to pull the plug, and in the case of Disney/ABC, they did in fact pull a fast one on the viewing public, in forcing a TV fast on them.  So it's the cable companies that end up as proponents of we the people?

Early this year, Time Warner Cable customers faced the threat of losing their Fox stations, which broadcast shows like "The Simpsons," and "American Idol," during a standoff with News Corp., which owns Fox.

"Consumers are increasingly being put in the middle of disputes," Time Warner Cable said in a statement. "The petitioners implore the FCC to act expeditiously to help prevent further consumer harm."

Cable TV and other video providers are concerned that broadcasters have threatened to shut down, or actually ceased, TV signals when talks don't go their way. They want regulators to stop broadcasters from yanking TV signals during contract talks. They also want the FCC to put into place mandatory arbitration or other measures to resolve disputes.

And hey, what they propose is perfectly fine by me, but the problem is that they want it both ways.  The want to be free of the FCC when it's convenient for them, and they want the FCC's help when it's in their interests.

I say, the FCC should intervene, but on the side of the consumer, the people, and give us cable neutrality and TV à la carte.  Edward R. Murrow would approve.  Otherwise, we'll be saying FCC ya later, TV, turn the sets off altogether, and get our entertainment fix online instead.  Can you say, iTunes?

1 comment:

Martin Friedman said...

And it even goes beyond this- don't know if the commercials are airing in the NYC area, but there's been an ad from a group calling to save free antenna TV.

Time will tell, I guess, with many rural areas still fighting to get broadband to access the internet.