CBS v Time Warner: An Opportunity for Consumers?

First, some disclosure.  I am a former employee of CBS.  In the early 1980s, I worked for CBS Radio and helped convert them from manual audio switching by engineers to computer-controlled audio switching.  I have always had a soft spot for them among the networks.

David Carr, who covers the Media for the New York Times, wrote a great article over the weekend (here, and also reproduced at the end of this post) about the battle between CBS and Time Warner Cable over how to divide the massive amounts of money being paid for cable TV programming – with the result that Time Warner has cut off CBS programming (including its owned channels like Showtime) from the Time Warner subscribers in New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

Rather than view the world as both CBS and Time Warner seem to be viewing it – as a place with limited resources (e.g., subscriber dollars) that must be fought over – I prefer to view the world as a dynamic place where new business models can be implemented to benefit all.

I would love to see CBS respond to Time Warner Cable by releasing its programming directly to consumers via internet download.  A simple change to CBS’s already-existing iOS and Android apps could allow for direct-to-consumer sales.  Apple TV and Google’s new Chromecast device would make it easy to display that programming on the TV screen.

We consumers have collectively been held hostage by the cable industry for far too long.  Cable companies are almost always a monopoly in their city, so we do not have effective competition to protect consumers and keep prices reasonable.  Now, an opportunity exists for a significant content producer to break through that monopoly power of the cable industry and cut them out of the equation entirely.  Even if the cable company is also the internet provider, it would be shifted into the position of solely being a supplier of digital plumbing – and that is a market where competition is much more robust than delivering TV content.

I hope CBS can be really smart in this situation!



Self-Serving War of Words by 2 Giants in Television


As consumers in the modern age, we’ve become accustomed to the brinkmanship between cable distributors and programmers. Most of the time, there is much rattling of sabers and then some accommodation is reached. But sometimes, the war of words turns into an actual war, as it did on Friday when Time Warner Cable announced it would turn off CBS stations for three million of its customers in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas.

It’s a significant inconvenience for viewers, but it is not the only irritation in the by-now-familiar rumbles between the companies that own the pipes and the companies that make the programming that goes into those pipes.

While it may be disappointing that some of us will miss a rerun of “Dexter” on Showtime, which is owned by CBS, or the network’s summer hit “Under the Dome,” what makes it worse is the suggestion by both sides that they are only trying to stick up for us. Blacked-out Time Warner Cable customers were confronted by the following propaganda on their screens:

“The outrageous demands from CBS, the owner of Showtime and TMC, has forced us to remove it from your lineup while we continue to negotiate for fair and reasonable terms.”

“Forced us. . . .” Really, Time Warner Cable? It seems more like the business negotiation you were having with a supplier did not yield the desired result and you’ve chosen to turn up the heat.

Not to be outdone, a statement from CBS made sure everyone understood that the network was really doing the people’s work in responding to the news:

“CBS remains resolute in the pursuit of fair compensation for our programming and will use the full resources available to us to make sure that Time Warner Cable subscribers are aware of its shortsighted, anti-consumer strategy.”

There’s more where that came from — “disinformation,” “voodoo mathematics” and “wildly inflated percentages” — but you get the idea.

Here’s an idea for both parties: Leave us out of it.

We know that you are fighting over lucre, not our inalienable rights as cable consumers. Pretending that you are fighting on our behalf rather than in the interests of your shareholders and executives is infantilizing and unbecoming. CBS is coming off another record year, Time Warner Cable’s stock is storming along, and the fight over retransmission fees is about how the pie is sliced, nothing more.

We have all grown used to the respective parties turning programming on and off as the negotiating table requires, but your bombast is tired, your motives are transparent and it’s clear that the public dimensions of this business conflict are far down the list of priorities.

Writing in the comments section accompanying the news in The New York Times, one reader spoke for many of us:

“These games of chicken are depressingly common among cable companies and networks across the country — made all the more obnoxious by the marketing spin from both sides intended directed at customers they assume to be economic illiterates. They are nothing more than battles between media behemoths over who can stick their hands deeper into the pockets of the remaining viewers beholden to their dying business models.”

So, as you were, guys. Continue to bash in each other’s heads all you want. Just don’t pretend this is a noble crusade for the consumer.

A version of this article appeared in print on August 5, 2013, on page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: Self-Serving War of Words By 2 Giants In Television.

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