The first decade of the 21st century started on an unsettling television note, when Walt Disney pulled ABC stations around the country off Time Warner Cable system lineups in a furor over retransmission consent. Disney wanted cash for Time Warner's right to run ABC on its systems; negotiations between the parties came to a head and went over the cliff. Time Warner came off the villain and reached a consent deal within 72 hours.
The second decade almost started the same way – same operator, different broadcast party. Fox wanted Time Warner Cable to ante up $1 a customer in retrans payment for its broadcast affiliates in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, throwing in new long-term contracts for FX, Speed Channel and other cable channels. Time Warner refused, looking for somewhere in the 30-50 cent a customer range. On New Year's Eve, it looked like things were in place for another cliff dive, as both sides were predicting channel blackouts through newspaper, radio and TV ads all over the nation.
Luckily, there was a different outcome. Fox and Time Warner Cable executives kept the conversation going past a Dec. 31 midnight deadline, encouraged by public and legislator outcry. And lo and behold, after a few multi-hour extensions on New Year's Day, a deal. Our nation, at least the nation of people worried that they wouldn't get to see the Sugar Bowl, the last Sunday afternoon of NFL regular season games, or the season premieres of American Idol and 24, were saved.
The connection between these two situations a decade apart? When these retransmission consent deals were struck, after so much public discourse, the dealmakers clammed up about the terms. Press releases contained the "terms of the agreement were not disclosed" line. Bottom line: after all the effort to get the public riled up about losing their favorite ABC or Fox stations, the public doesn't know what ABC, Fox or Time Warner Cable agreed to, and how that impacts their cable bill and what they watch. They end up wondering what all their fuss was worth.
Pardon me, but that's a crock. When both sides of a retransmission or carriage fee dispute spend so much energy, advertising and advocacy to get the public behind their case, the public doesn't deserve to be left out of the outcome. You put the public front and center in this fix, you give them the key terms, the impact on their lives and acknowledgment for getting a deal done. You don't brush them off. You don't hide behind a press release sentence of non-disclosure. You don't forget that they are your viewers and customers, and without them, you don't exist.
Call this tilting at windmills, a la Don Quixote, if you like. Just seems from this corner that the public should be in on the outcome of a retransmission/carriage dispute, as well as in the middle of the road to getting it resolved.
We've got a big opportunity to try this out, as Scripps Networks and Cablevision Systems have a blackout of Home & Garden Television and Food Network entering week two, impacting more than three million Cablevision NYC area customers. Can we go for it?
Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned.
Simon Applebaum is host/producer of Tomorrow Will Be Televised, the Internet radio program covering the TV scene. The program runs live Mondays and selected Fridays at 3 p.m. Eastern time/noon, Pacific time over www.blogtalkradio.com. Replays are available 24/7 at www.blogtalkradio.com/simonapple04; podcasts, downloadable to any major mobile device, are available for downloads through a group of Web sites arranged by www.sonibyte.com. Have a question or comment? Express it via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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