Cablevision-ABC standoff ends, TV-hostage risks remain
Cablevision subscribers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut got WABC back just in time to watch the Oscars last night. But the cease-fire in the argument over how much the cable operator should pay for the right to retransmit the Walt Disney Co.-owned station's programming came way too late to leave TV subscribers feeling comfortable.
There's much to dislike about this corporate slap fight. Cablevision subscribers lost programming for which they pay ever-increasing sums--and did so just in time for one of the bigger viewing nights of the year. Some may have been able to work around the disruption by watching WABC over the air and others took advantage of timely promotions to switch to Verizon's Fios service. A few had to seek more drastic remedies: My onetime Post colleague Bill Frischling trained a webcam on a TV so his mother could watch via a Skype videoconference.
Even non-subscribers, in turn, had to put up with the irritating spectacle of two for-profit companies acting as if each was uniquely devoted to helping viewers and the other kicks puppies for fun. (In a fit of passive-aggressive behavior, Cablevision even switched viewers' cable boxes to display an ad denouncing WABC's conduct--yet another reason to end cable operators' control of viewing hardware.)
WABC and Cablevision did not reveal the terms of their settlement--though presumably it will involve Bethpage, N.Y.-based Cablevision paying something less than the $1 per viewer, per month that the New York broadcaster had reportedly demanded.
We're only going to see more of these squabbles and standoffs as networks step up their demands for higher retransmission fees. Just since the start of this year, subscribers of Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable each each almost lost Fox's channels; customers of Mediacom retained access to Sinclair Broadcast Group's stations just in time to miss college football's BCS championship game; and Cablevision viewers couldn't watch such Scripps Networks channels as HGTV and Food Network for about three weeks in January.
Viewers can and should be irate at being used as human shields in this manner. But if they can't change to a competing service--or if early-termination fees make it financially painful to switch--what can they do on their own to resolve these hostage situations?
I have to wonder if these carriage disputes don't expose a broader flaw in the pay-TV business model. When networks and stations can demand greater payments from subscription services--but the people who ultimately pay for higher retransmission fees don't see those exact costs, much less get a chance to vote with their wallets for or against companies seeking these fee increases--you have a situation that can look like a case of market failure.
Have you come close to losing access to a channel because your TV provider and the channel's owner couldn't settle their differences on time? (If you actually lost the channel, did you get a refund to compensate for the inconvenience?) How did the experience make you feel about the reliability of your TV service?
March 8, 2010; 12:18 PM ET
Categories: Policy and politics , TV
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