6:48 PM EDT, September 5, 2013
So here's the final score: Time Warner Cable got some but not all of what it wanted. CBS got pretty much everything that it wanted.
And after a month of being denied access to CBS, Showtime and other popular channels, Time Warner subscribers got the certainty of even costlier monthly bills and the assurance that money-grubbing squabbles among multibillion-dollar media giants will continue.
Excuse me if I'm not exactly thrilled about this week's conclusion to the latest in a series of go-ahead-make-my-day confrontations between greedy corporations.
Moreover, why aren't our elected officials hopping mad about these ongoing industry food fights and racing to pass legislation aimed at finally giving consumers a break from the endless cycle of rising pay-TV bills?
"We need regulators who are willing to stop powerful special interests, whether broadcasters or cable firms, that use consumers as pawns in their spats," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
"In the long run, we need better rules, including a la carte pricing, to help change the video marketplace," he said.
I've been pushing for years for a la carte pricing — paying only for the channels you want. More on that in a moment.
First, let's sample the bury-the-hatchet statements released by Time Warner Cable and CBS after they made the peace.
Glenn Britt, Time Warner's chief exec, said the company's hard-nosed bargaining stance was guided by wanting "to hold down costs and retain our ability to deliver a great video experience for our customers."
"While we certainly didn't get everything we wanted, ultimately we ended up in a much better place than when we started," he said.
Les Moonves, the head of CBS, said that the accord provides "fair compensation for CBS content" and the ability "to monetize our content going forward on all the new, developing platforms that are right now transforming the way people watch television."
Cutting through all the corporate doublespeak, Time Warner Cable is saying that its customers will have to pay more for CBS' channels, but maybe not quite as much as CBS wanted.
CBS is saying it's still getting a sweet deal, thank you very much, and will have no problem sticking it to Time Warner by also cutting deals to make its programming available via online services such as Hulu and Netflix.
The real kick in the teeth for consumers is that we'll have to go through this again and again, every time a programmer decides to use a popular channel as leverage to reach deeper into the pockets of captive pay-TV customers.
The heart of this blatant rip-off is the practice of bundling — selling a bunch of channels as a package to pay-TV companies and their subscribers. Take the example of Viacom.
A viewer might want Comedy Central just for "The Daily Show." Or maybe Nickelodeon for its kids' shows. Or maybe MTV or VH1 for whatever they air nowadays (I stopped watching when music videos went away).
But you can't get just the channel or channels you desire. You have to take everything Viacom sells, including CMT's country-flavored programming, Spike's macho offerings, assorted Nickelodeon spinoffs, such as Nick Jr. and Nicktoons, and Logo TV's gay-themed lineup.
This is how every major programmer does it. Maybe you want AMC for "The Walking Dead" or "Breaking Bad." But AMC Networks will also make you take WE tv and the Sundance Channel.
Fox is happy to offer its FXM movie channel, but you also have to receive FX and the National Geographic Channel.
Not a sports fan? Tough. You won't receive Disney's channels unless you pony up about $5 a month — the largest amount of any cable channel — for ESPN and its various offshoots. Fox has nearly a dozen of its own sports channels to force down your throat.
Don't speak Spanish or Chinese or Korean? That's tough as well. You're paying for foreign-language channels.
Cable companies, meanwhile, for all their talk of safeguarding subscribers' interests, are no better than programmers. Time Warner Cable makes Southern California subscribers pay $4 a month for its Lakers channel regardless of whether they want it. It'll presumably do the same with its new Dodgers channel next year.
Comcast runs the world's largest cable network. It also owns NBC, 15 cable channels, 13 regional sports and news networks and more than 60 international channels.
The entire system is rigged to keep consumers paying as much as possible for hundreds of channels they likely never watch. According to the ratings company Nielsen, the average pay-TV subscriber watches only about 17 channels on a regular basis.
For all their PR blather about being the consumer's best buddy, both programmers and distributors want nothing so much as to keep fleecing people by selling them products they don't want.
The solution is obvious: an end to bundling and the introduction of a la carte programming. Let the market decide which channels sink or swim and at what prices.
Critics of a la carte say it would cause the average cost of channels to skyrocket and would curtail programming diversity because smaller niche channels would no longer survive.
I don't buy those arguments. If the monthly cost of ESPN were to soar to $30, as some have predicted, subscribers would fall away in droves until either the channel came up with a more realistic business model or someone else managed to offer sports at a more reasonable price.
That would no doubt involve sports teams and universities no longer soaking fans with ridiculously expensive licensing agreements.
And if the market for a Golf Channel or a Military History Channel turned out to be too small for such programming to be viable as a cable network, they'd just have to do what other niche players have done: Find a new life on YouTube, Hulu or some other online venue.
In any case, we'll never know whether a la carte will work unless we give it a try. I nominate California as the nation's lab rat.
Otherwise, we'll see more schoolyard fights like the one between Time Warner and CBS. There wasn't even a knock-out: Each company walked away with nothing worse than a black eye.
The rest of us will be nursing our wounds for years to come.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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