So what now? The residual aftertaste of the Cablevision-Fox retrans fight continues to linger… and not in a good way. It was a nasty battle that didn’t get any nicer even after both sides inked a deal over the weekend. “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,” said the MSO in a release. “It is clear the retransmission consent system is badly broken and needs to be fixed.”
In business, people like to say nothing’s personal. But this fight came pretty close. Both sides lobbed daily bombs at each other. Cablevision wanted mediation or other government intervention; Fox wanted private negotiations. And in the end, Fox was able to extract a deal out of Cablevision without the FCC or Congress directly stepping into the process. In fact, FCC chmn Julius Genachowski offered little sympathy to Cablevision, at one point telling the operator to stop asking for help and return to the negotiating table. Fox, meanwhile, held its ground until the end and eventually got more money out of Cablevision than the MSO felt it was fair to pay. Fox, which spends a ton of money on high-quality content and sports rights, thought the deal was more than in line with the value it adds. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who knows?
So should the government get involved? It’s a tough question. Rep. John Kerry’s (D-MA) push for retrans legislation would probably help MSOs during negotiations, especially mid-sized and small ones. There’s no doubt that forced mediation and restrictions on pulling networks would allow operators to buy some time and take away a key leverage point for programmers. But this puts the cable industry in an awkward position. How does it argue for a general hands-off government policy in other areas like net neutrality but then advocate for it when it comes to retrans? And if consumers deserve protection from having their favorite channels pulled, don’t they deserve Title II-esque protections when using the Internet? Get ready for those arguments. Asking for retrans reform could give the government and public-interest groups an excuse to demand cable concessions on unrelated topics (like net neutrality). Perhaps it’s worth the risk. But cable should know what it’s getting into.
It was perhaps a bit ironic that the Cablevision-Fox deal happened only a few hours after Comedy Central wrapped up the John Stewart-Stephen Colbert branded “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the National Mall. The ultimate point of that rally was to advocate for more civility in politics, but after more than two weeks of listening to Fox and Cablevision publicly beat each other up over retrans, it’s fair to ask whether some of those same principles might also apply to carriage disputes. Public spats are great for us in the media. We cover them top to bottom, regurgitating every nasty statement and counter-statement—trying our best to be as fair as possible and objectively give each side a chance to vent. But all of this really raises the question of whether these private negotiations should play out publicly in the first place. Mediation or not… Government involvement or not… can’t both sides in these negotiations just agree up front that neither will resort to public statements? It may seem odd for anyone in the press to suggest such a thing. After all, we’re supposed to eat this stuff up. But really… Do these very public fights ever do anyone any good?
You can bet the next carriage fight is right around the corner. More channels will get pulled. Consumers will miss their favorite shows as big corporate giants duke it out publicly, trying to get viewers to blame the other side. But does the acrimony really accomplish anything or does it just confirm that the same intransigence so derided in the realm of politics is just as bad in corporate America? There must be a better way. Perhaps those who sit across the table from one another should spend more time celebrating the symbiotic partnership between programmers and distributors rather than viewing each other as adversaries bent on public displays of acrimony. Is that easier said than done? Of course. But what isn’t?
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX)

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