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Cablevision-Fox spat sure to draw sequels

As the Fox-Cablevision hostage drama grinds into its fourth day, there's no sign of a resolution -- but plenty of hints that we'll see a sequel on other TV providers.

Since Friday, about 3 million Cablevision subscribers in parts of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut have lost access to Fox programming - including coverage of Sunday's New York Giants game against the Detroit Lions and the National League Championship Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants.

Fox says it wants Cablevision to pay its fair share for retransmitting its signal. Cablevision says Fox is asking too much. Local viewers -- and local politicians -- are understandably fed up with both companies.

Cablevision is no more loved than, well, other cable companies -- and has a history of cutting off channels because of carriage disputes. Since the whole point of paying ever-increasing sums for cable TV is not to have to worry about losing access to a particular channel, that's no way to win friends.

(Cablevision's responsibility for the Isiah Thomas era at the New York Knicks can't help, either.)

Fox, meanwhile, burned whatever goodwill it might have had with viewers by briefly preventing Cablevision Internet subscribers from watching Fox programs at Hulu or its own site.

This clueless shoot-the-hostage move did little beyond making the powerlessness of Hulu's management pathetically obvious -- and showing a profound lack of imagination by the fools at Fox who signed off on it.

A more forward-thinking company would go after viewers wherever it can find them, instead of continuing to bind its fortunes to the existing gatekeepers. Just compare Fox's actions to the aggressive efforts of the Pandora Web-radio service to reach listeners in as many places as possible. Or compare Fox's actions to Fox's actions: This company, with ABC, broke with other networks in signing up for Apple's new, 99-cent TV-show rentals.

The most annoying thing about these carriage disputes is the notion that we viewers should regard any of these companies as being on our side.

Cable and satellite operators can talk all they want about "holding the line" on TV-network demands, but their bluster never seems to lead to lower rates. TV networks, meanwhile, see an easy way to pad their profits by getting TV providers to spend subscribers' money and add more of their channels to ever-bulkier programming bundles.

The networks further insult the intelligence of viewers by suggesting that they switch to other TV services. Even if you have a choice (remember, many people can't subscribe to satellite because of trees or buildings in the way) and don't have to eat an early-termination fee, going to a different provider only postpones the day you get stuck in one of these standoffs.

Up next: Dish Network, which will see some Fox carriage contracts expire Nov. 1. Fox has already set up a site, Get What I Paid For, that pretends to speak for Fox viewers' interests.

One rational solution to this would be allowing viewers to cast their own votes, by choosing to pay for individual channels or not. Since the pay-TV industry appears militantly opposed to a la carte pricing, your other option is one I chose last year -- not to pay for TV at all, relying instead on over-the-air broadcasts and Internet streams.

What's your prediction for the Cablevision-Fox dispute: Will this last through the World Series, will one side or the other cave earlier, or will a significant chunk of Cablevision subscribers remember that TV is free over the air with a little work?

For extra credit, how confident are you that your own TV service will continue to carry the channels you want -- wait, there's more -- without perpetual price increases?

(9:18 p.m. The Federal Communications Commission has a helpful explanation of the dispute that outlines your options. And earlier today, the FCC used its Twitter account to broadcast updates about today's Phillies-Giants game without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.)

By Rob Pegoraro  | October 19, 2010; 12:07 PM ET
Categories:  Gripes, TV, Video  
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Well, Rob, you warned us that this would happen again in your blog entry back in March after Cablevision and ABC resolved their dispute (and WABC returned shortly after the Oscar telecast began). Cablevision subscribers have become a punching bag this year with all the blackouts. Can't wait to see what happens with Dish Network and Fox. I just hope anyone canceling Cablevision service doesn't end up going with Dish Network (Verizon FiOS or DirectTV is safer bet). Better yet, cut the cord and buy a TV antenna - if you live close enough to get a digital TV signal over the air. I would if I could get a reliable signal over the air.

Posted by: TheNervousCat | October 19, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

This article is missing something - what is the NFL's reaction to Fox cutting out 3 million customers in one of their prime markets? If I was the NFL I'd be on the phone to CBS - where the NFL really belongs - that Sunday afternoon. If I was CBS I'd be calling Monday AM!

This is also one of those situations where management on both sides has not thought rationally. Now Congress will get involved, and the outcome may be worse for both parties. Serves them right.

Cable is dying. They are losing hundreds of thousands of customers every quarter with no added value products. Internet TV is going to make them obsolete. This spat will only encourage their customers to vigorously seek an alternative.

Posted by: Islander5 | October 19, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Your comment about people not being able to switch is dead on

Nothing drives me crazier than hearing someone claim "Just move then" or "Just change service" neither can happen without SEVERE financial issues (with the moving part) and my building having an agreement with just ONE company. Now, my building claims I could have ANOTHER do my cable/tv but I would have to pay for all the installation which would cost HUNDREDS b/c of wiring, etc....

It is a joke

Posted by: Bious | October 19, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

This is where complaints about cable and satellite TV providers intersects with arguments about Net Neutrality.
Today Hulu and Netflix provide free (or substantially cheaper) access to the same TV as cable and satellite, so why shouldn't more and more customers ditch cable for high speed internet.
But if the ISP's are allowed to charge more for the extra bandwidth used in streaming video, what do you want to bet those premium data tiers will be roughly comparable to a cable TV bill?

Posted by: blakes7th | October 19, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

This should be less of a problem with Comcast, which owns both the pipes and the content (assuming NBC's acquisition). But that Comcast cable bill, on the other hand...

Why isn’t denial of cafeteria pricing for cable channels deemed as monopolistic restraint of trade? Now we are paying for some channels TWICE: once for the regular version and once for the HD version. Same content, same commercials (the commercials usually aren’t in HD on the HD channels). Once I get the HD channels, why can’t I opt out of the non-HD versions and pay a lower cable bill?

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | October 19, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: TheNervousCat | October 20, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

This is the fault of the FCC and Congress; they love to talk about how they care about consumers but they don't enforce or enact laws that would bring these disputes to an end.

What's needed is baseball-style arbitration; the FCC has the power to order it but lacks the will to do so.

Posted by: swanni | October 23, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

i see this happening in houston,tx soon. in 2 years rockets/astros games mve to comcast sports and away from fox so they are going to play hard ball to keep the same money without these broadcast. i also live in a building without a choice other than comcast due to owner having a contract with comcast to block anyone else.

Posted by: thoustonguy | October 25, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

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