Retrans Food Fight! Why This Administration Will Deal With Cable After All.

Remember how once whacky old Kevin Martin the Cable Playa Hatah was gone the FCC was gonna forget all about cable? Because, after all, cable was all vibrant and competitive and stuff and who needs dumb old cable when everyone has Broadband?

Item one in communications land for the new year is the first round of retransmission fights. The biggies at the moment are Sinclair/Mediacom, where Mediacom has tried to get the FCC to weigh in on its side, TWC v. Fox, TWC v. Food Network/Scripps Howard (which no longer includes Scripps broadcasting properties), and Cablevision v. Food Network. Although TWC and Mediacom agreed to extensions with the various programmers to continue to try to sort things out, and TWC ultimately reached an agreement with Fox, Cablevision and Food Network ended up in stalemate.

Result, Cablevision has dropped Food Network and HGTV. In the war for the hearts and minds of customers, the Food Network folks have launched web based outreach with clips and fact sheets. Cablevision’s response is a little harder to find, but digging through their customer service led me to this page which basically says “Scripps wanted to much money for their programming, we hope you enjoy the other cooking shows we have.” Unfortunately for Scripps, the broadcast TV fights have significantly overshadowed them.

Which brings us to the first point of importance for all those folks in policyland who keep insisting that “broadcasting is dead.” You will notice that from the perspective of people reporting news to folks outside policyland, keeping broadcast programming was much bigger news than people actually losing popular cable-only programming. Second point – this is Food Network’s first round of negotiations as a stand alone cable company without also negotiating for broadcast properties. This gives them significantly less leverage.

But all these pale beside the third point — cable (and I mean cable, not “MVPD”) regulatory issues remain important and the market power and consumer protection issue don’t disappear because we now have multiple delivery platforms. Millions of people spend billions of dollars on these services and care a heck of a lot about them. Like it or not, and despite all the coventional wisdom about youtube, twitter, teh inerwebz, blah blah, this medium and these programmers dominate — indeed, arguably define — our common national culture. That means cable policy will continue to be a vital part of the FCC’s focus despite a desire to do sexier things like wireless and broadband.

Which means the folks on the 8th Floor need to wake up, grudgingly admit that whacky old Kevin Martin wasn’t so whacky after all, and reopen the proceedings on wholesale cable programming unbundling, retrans, leased access, Section 616 reform, and the other issues around boring cable programming the FCC hoped it could forget about because broadband and wireless would solve evrything and who watched TV anymore anyway.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. What sequence of events do you see leading from this episode to unbundling? The major players seem to really like bundles of programming.

    Would the unbundling you envision be cable-only, or would it extend to satellite broadcast as well?

  2. Sorry, I should be more precise. The wholesale unbundling proceeding is where all kinds of fun questions around whether retrans of broadcast signal should be bundled with cable programming on the wholesale level. My point is that there are a number of cable issues that Martin started and that now are in deep freeze. To address these issues, those proceedings will need to come out of deep freeze. But I’m not sure what rules will ultimately flow from it.

    I’ll confess, I do a lot less cable at Pk than I did when I was at MAP.

  3. Genachowski wants his legacy to be “more broadband, especially the mobile kind.” He’s absolutely right to pursue that. It will benefit the U.S. in lots of ways, but it will be years before most consumers see any benefit from it. If Genachowski wants a pro-consumer legacy that actually helps average Americans in the next five years, he should do what Harold is suggesting and take on cable rates. Finish the job Martin started by going after the big programmers and prevent them from forcing all those excess channels onto our cable TV lineups that we have to pay for. Yes cable faces competition from phone companies and satellite, but real problem is with programmers, which are the main cause of cable rate increases. If Genachowski went after the programmers in the name of protecting consumers, every Democrat in Congress, and a probably a few Republicans, would stand up and cheer. And “lowering cable rates” would be a nice issue for Obama to include in his 2012 re-election campaign.

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