Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cablevision Agonistes
I got to watch Game Three of the World Series last night on my TV. This wouldn't be remarkable were it not for the fact that I wasn't able to watch the first two games of the Rangers-Giants series, nor the entirety of my beloved Phillies' six-game loss to the Giants in the National League Championship Series, owing to a dispute between the carrier, Cablevision, and News Corp, the parent company of Fox, that kept Fox's New York City affiliate off the air in the homes of Cablevision subscribers from October 16, when the NLCS began, until sometime yesterday, on the 30th, when the two parties reached an agreement in principle. (I watched the NLCS, drinking heavily and generally slipping into despair as the favored Phillies fell behind and ultimately were sent home in six games, on this computer, through a foreign stream of dubious legality in a window about the size of a new-school package of stamps. Partly because of lingering pain over the Phils getting bounced, partly because it didn't seem worth it anyway, I only listened to the radio for a bit of World Series Game Two while doing some work.)

The NewsCorp-Cablevision pissing contest was unusual in the annals of such disputes for its length--they usually don't last even a full day--and bitterness. And while details of the resolution aren't yet public, it sure sounds like Cablevision caved, meaning that I and everyone else will have to pay more on the ol' cable bill for stations available for free over the air! Check out their statement:

In the absence of any meaningful action from the FCC, Cablevision has agreed to pay Fox an unfair price for multiple channels of its programming including many in which our customers have little or no interest. Cablevision conceded because it does not think its customers should any longer be denied the Fox programs they wish to see.

Cablevision thanks its customers for understanding the reasons for the dispute and for staying with us. We are also grateful to the 175 government leaders who raised their voices to urge government intervention and binding arbitration to prevent this blackout. It is clear the retransmission consent system is badly broken and needs to be fixed.

In the end, our customers will pay more than they should for Fox programming, but less than they would have if we had accepted the unprecedented rates News Corp. was demanding when they pulled their channels off Cablevision.

From the outset of the dispute, Cablevision announced its willingness to accept binding third-party arbitration; News Corp did not. As the shot at the FCC suggests, the former company's repeated requests for federal intervention were rejected--perhaps because News Corp has given money early and often to officials in Washington, ">primarily but not exclusively to Republicans. Still, public outrage might have forced a quicker resolution had the Yankees' playoff series been on Fox rather than TBS (or if they'd won that round and advanced to the World Series), or were the Giants on Fox last weekend rather than ESPN's Monday Night Football. (They're on a bye this week, though the Jets are on Fox as they're hosting Green Bay; that probably impelled Fox to make whatever fig leaf of a concession they ultimately did.)

News Corp's profits in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2010 were $875 million. Poor Cablevision, a much smaller entity, made "only" $61 million in the same three-month period.

The greed of these two entities is shocking enough, but government's unwillingness or inability to intervene in what seems like a pretty clear case of market failure is what I can't get past. I have no real alternative to Cablevision; my understanding (this might be wrong) is that they have a local monopoly in this neighborhood, and a satellite dish isn't feasible in this building. I could have bought a $25 antenna to attach to my TV to get Fox over the air--but I didn't really feel like paying any additional money on top of what we already spend on cable every month. So I watched a shitty feed on my desktop during the NLCS and hoped they'd resolve in time for me to catch some of the Series.

I worry that this is symptomatic of a current trend that's about to accelerate, big-time: obscenely rich corporate entities battling over how to split up their ever-growing pie, while consumers suffer in helplessness and the government that ostensibly speaks for them sidelines itself because it's somehow convinced itself that it needs the companies more than vice-versa. (Remember that these are publicly owned airwaves, in theory at least.) In another one of those fiendishly brilliant moves they seem able to pull off every few years, Republicans evidently have convinced a majority of the likely-voting public that companies accountable to nobody but their shareholders somehow are more reliable caretakers of the public good than are the elected and appointed officials of democratic government. (How else could having insurance company bureaucrats exercise effective control over your health care decisions be preferable to "government bureaucrats" doing the same?)

I haven't seen any public polling on which entity is perceived to bear the bulk of blame in the Cablevision-News Corp kerfuffle. But based on this, the answer is probably "Barack Obama." Until the public grasps the facts rather than a dishonest story told by self-interested parties, the field will become ever more clear for the News Corps of the world to act in vile and irresponsible ways, and even be cheered for it.