The recent hubbub over Comcast’s supposed backing of new conservative cable net RightNetwork certainly highlights the often misinformed blogosphere (Comcast has no association to the net, nor has it yet agreed to carry it). But it also raises a number of issues for the cable industry. The central question: How political should cable be in this highly fractured, Tea Party-vs.-MoveOn.org, Red State-vs.-Blue State, Coastal Elites-vs.-Flyover State “Real” Americans world in which we now all apparently live?
Comcast may have set the record straight on this one, but other cable operators and programmers all run the risk of being branded politically based on their associations, program choices and even their deals with on-air talent. In most cases, cable nets have a decent mix of shows that are neither liberal, conservative or anything in between. Most of us realize that the cable industry really prays to only one god: Money. Programmers want ratings so they can charge higher ad rates. Operators want to give consumers the most content choices possible so they don’t cut the cord or go to a competitor. It’s usually as simple as that. The United States is split politically, perhaps more now than in the last hundred years. And cable programming generally reflects that. People love John Stewart. People love Glenn Beck. There’s plenty of Kool Aid to go around for everyone.
But the latest Comcast confusion of RightNetwork is just a symptom of a larger trend that the cable industry should at least recognize. The debate over Fox News, MSNBC and CNN gets played out every day. But it’s the realm of non-news nets and associations where things get murkier, and both programmers and operators should be prepared to defend themselves when a political group or blogger decides to assign blame or even credit to a corporate entity for carrying a particular political banner. In some cases, a company might embrace the attention. But in other cases, being branded one way or another can turn off a large portion of the audience, spook advertisers and ultimately lead to complications.
Discovery Communications, for example, took a definite risk signing a deal with Sarah Palin, who despite irritating environmental groups with her “drill, drill, drill” mantra and global warming skepticism will now be taking us on a journey through nature’s wonders in “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” on TLC. While TLC long ago set itself apart from Discovery’s other nets and is probably the best place for Palin, Discovery’s close association with Liberty Media and proud conservative John Malone (a big force on Discovery’s board) just gives liberal groups more ammunition. Nevermind that Discovery has a much bigger deal with Oprah Winfrey, a big President Obama supporter who will get an entire network to tout what many consider a relatively liberal view of the world. Yet it’s Discovery’s association with Palin that’s drawing much of the attention. That, of course, relates to Palin’s identification as a polarizing political figure versus Winfrey’s softer image as an entertainer, albeit with political views. A subtle difference, but a big one when it comes to public perception. And all cable programmers and operators should keep these nuances in mind.
Ultimately, the cable industry is about making money. Rupert Murdoch is about making money. Jeff Zucker is about making money. Brian Roberts is about making money. Shareholders expect nothing less. Cable content and distribution companies are in the business of signing deals that return a profit to shareholders or equity partners. Over time, the shows they pick and networks they distribute will sync up pretty accurately to the overall mood of the country (or at least advertiser-friendly demographics). There’s no conspiracy, unless you consider capitalism a political philosophy. But everyone in cable should have a plan in place to defend against criticism of business moves deemed “political” in nature.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX)