Last Friday, in eight major television markets, CBS stations disappeared from televisions served by Time-Warner Cable. In addition, stations owned by CBS, including Showtime and the Smithsomian Channel, are also off the air.
Except there isn’t any air. And that’s part of the problem.
When television first became a business, the various stations broadcast over airwaves owned by the people and licensed by the government. Having a broadcast license was like a license to print money, and, in exchange, the owners of the license were expected to do things “in the public interest,” like news programs and public service announcements.
Because of, you know, capitalism, people learned how to make money from these forms of public service. News divisions must now be profitable. Public service ads are often underwritten by for-profit corporations, which use them as occasions to build their brands.
In other words, CBS (and the other networks) became corporate powers in no small part because our tax dollars allowed them to reach a mass market.
And then, cable.
Now, cable also depends on an infrastructure that owes its existence to public investment. Phone lines, the Internet – all came about because the government supported them. It is therefore not unreasonable to expect cable (and fiber optic and satellite) companies to do things in the public interest.
One of those things, mandated by local-carry laws, has been to carry local stations, including those affiliated with broadcast networks. In New York, that means the five major networks (ABC, CBS, the CW, Fox and NBC) as well as Channel 9, which is owned by Fox but doesn’t broadcast network programming, but does have a lot of baseball.
Several years ago, Congress, in its wisdom, decided that these poor network affiliates were being discriminated against by the nasty cable (and satellite etc.) companies. Cable stations get a fee for every subscriber, while the broadcast channels do not. Therefore, Congress allowed the broadcast channels to get a fee for every subscriber as well.
Which brings us to our current situation. In New York, CBS wants to raise its fee from $1.00 per subscriber to $2.00. Time Warner doesn’t want to pay that much. The previous contract expired in June, and, until now, Time Warner allowed CBS to continue to use its system to reach customers. However, with football season on the way, and new fall shows about to debut. They wanted to get the matter settled.
Which they are doing, in a manner that pleases no one.
If I lived anywhere else, I might consider switching providers. However, in Manhattan, satellite is not a reliable choice (skyscrapers get in the way), and not every building is wired for other cable providers. I don’t claim Time Warner is the best, but I’m generally happy with it.
I don’t get Showtime, and I don’t watch a lot of CBS. I like the first half-hour of their morning show (because they sometimes have actual news on it). I like Scott Pelley for my news anchor, but not so much that I can’t watch Brian Williams. I like Elementary, but it’s in reruns. Under the Dome is great, but I can see it on Amazon (although not until Friday and the folks at CBS are being such dicks that I can’t see it online because cable is how I get my Internet). None of this is so disturbing that I need to take extraordinary measures to survive this inconvenience. In other words, I’m not getting an antenna.
Would I pay an extra dollar a month? Maybe. However, if I’m going to have to pony up for CBS, I want to be able to decide what other stations I get – or, more important, don’t get. Of the Viacom stations (corporate cousins of CBS), I don’t need MTV or VH1, but must must must have Comedy Central, and sometimes Logo. I bet my choices would cost them more than they’d get for me to see The Late Show with David Letterman the few times I’m awake that late.
And I would really love the opportunity to get Fox News off my signal in any way, shape and form.
SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman
SUNDAY: John Ostrander