from the dig-your-own-grave dept
For the consumer, these fights usually go something like this: you're bombarded with on-screen tickers and ads from both your cable operator and the broadcaster telling you the other guy is being a greedy villain during a contract standoff. After the programming contract expires, content you're paying for gets blacked out (which you're of course never given a refund for) by one side or the other in the hopes of pushing negotiations along. After a month or two the two sides then ultimately strike a confidential new programming deal. A few weeks later your cable bill sees a price hike -- potentially your second of the year.
It's kind of a lose-lose scenario for consumers, who get used as public relations pinatas (call your cable operator to complain!), lose access to content they're paying for, and then get accosted with an endless series of rate hikes. For the last few years, the FCC has generally had a hands off approach to these disputes (boys will be boys, and all that), but as they've gotten uglier and consumers have increasingly been railroaded, pressure has mounted for the regulator to at least do something. According to a new blog post by FCC boss Tom Wheeler, the FCC head says he's looking at a number of ideas that could help ease the pain of these idiotic standoffs. Maybe.
One, the FCC is considering lifting rules that prohibit cable companies from simply piping in another region's local broadcast affiliate, allowing them to at least provide customers with some version of ABC, NBC, Fox or CBS while negotiations continue. The agency also suggests it's going to look more closely at the very definition of "good faith negotiations," since these blackouts make it clear there's not much of that actually going on:
"The NPRM currently before the Commission undertakes a robust examination of practices used by parties in retransmission consent negotiations, as required by Congress. The goal of the proposed rulemaking is to ensure that these negotiations are conducted fairly and in a way that protects consumers."Since these are private business contracts, the FCC injecting itself into these negotiations is going to piss off free marketeers and the cable and broadcast industry to no end, but the industry brought it upon itself by behaving like absolute jackasses for the last few years. Not only have they consistently held traditional TV customers hostage, some broadcasters have even blocked access to online content in petulant responses to contract feuds.
In its fight with Cablevision in 2010, News Corporation went so far as to get Hulu to block Cablevision broadband customers from accessing all Fox content. Viacom did something similar in 2014 when it blocked all CableONE broadband customers from accessing Viacom content online, even if those broadband users were paying for TV from another provider. Let that sink in a little bit: you pay for Viacom content through, say, DirecTV, but you can't access that content through your broadband provider because the cable arm of your ISP is engaged in a TV content contract dispute.
And while broadcasters do deserve the lion's share of the blame for soaring programming rates, the cable providers aren't faultless since they're quick to impose rate hikes of their own (modem fees, broadcast TV fees, set top rental charges, charges to pay over the phone) as often as possible. Layer this lost content and annoyance on to existing high prices and the industry's absolutely legendary reputation for atrocious customer service, and you've uncovered the industry's ingenious plan to more efficiently dig its own grave on the eve of the cord cutting revolution.