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In Fox-Cablevision battle, both sides lose - and so do viewers

By Rob Pegoraro
Friday, October 22, 2010; 8:45 PM

As the Fox-Cablevision hostage drama grinds into its second week, there's no sign of a resolution at this writing - but plenty of hints that we'll see a sequel on other TV providers.

Since just after midnight Oct. 16, about 3 million Cablevision subscribers in parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have lost access to Fox programming - including coverage of last Sunday's New York Giants game against the Detroit Lions and the National League Championship Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants.

News Corp. subsidiary Fox says it wants Cablevision to pay its fair share for retransmitting its programming, the same as other providers. Cablevision says Fox asks for more than it pays any other network. Local viewers are understandably fed up with both sides.

Cablevision is no more loved than, well, other cable companies - and has a history of cutting off channels because of carriage disputes. Because the whole point of paying ever-increasing sums for cable TV is not to have to worry about having something to watch, that's no way to win friends.

Nor is failing to promise refunds to subscribers for their inconvenience during this impasse. (The Bethpage, N.Y., firm's responsibility for the horrific Isiah Thomas era at the New York Knicks can't help, either.)

Fox, meanwhile, burned whatever goodwill it might have had with viewers by briefly preventing Cablevision Internet subscribers - even if they paid another company for TV service - from watching Fox programs at Hulu or its own Fox.com site.

This clueless, quickly reversed shoot-the-hostage move did little beyond making the powerlessness of Hulu's management obvious - and showing a profound lack of imagination by whoever in Fox's Los Angeles headquarters signed off on it.

A more forward-thinking company would go after viewers wherever it could find them, instead of continuing to bind its fortunes to the existing gatekeepers in its industry. Just compare Fox's actions with the aggressive efforts of the Pandora Web-radio service to reach listeners in as many places as possible.

Or compare Fox's actions with Fox's actions: This company, along with ABC, broke with other networks in signing up for Apple's 99-cent TV-episode rentals.

And yet Fox won't pledge to refrain from pulling this kind of stunt again.

Although local politicians have lined up to denounce both companies and demand they settle their differences like grown-ups, government action seems unlikely.

The Federal Communications Commission has posted a helpful explanation of the dispute and used its Twitter account to broadcast updates about Tuesday's Phillies-Giants game without the express written consent of Major League Baseball. But the FCC has otherwise been content to let these two work things out on their own.

The most annoying thing about these carriage disputes is the notion that we viewers should regard any of these companies as being on our side.

Cable and satellite operators can talk all they want about "holding the line" on TV-network demands, but their bluster never seems to lead to lower rates. TV networks, meanwhile, see an easy way to pad their profits by getting TV providers to spend subscribers' money and add more of their channels to ever-bulkier programming bundles.

The networks further insult the intelligence of viewers by suggesting that they should protest by switching to other TV services. Even if you have a choice (remember, many people can't subscribe to satellite service because of trees or buildings that obstruct incoming signals) and don't have to eat an early-termination fee, going to a different provider only postpones the day you get stuck in one of these standoffs.

Up next: Dish Network and its more than 14 million subscribers. The Englewood, Colo., firm will see some Fox carriage contracts expire Nov. 1, a month after it lost access to Fox regional sports networks in a different dispute. Fox has already set up a site, Get What I Paid For, that pretends to speak for Fox viewers' interests.

One market-based solution to this would be to let viewers choose to pay for individual channels. But it's a rare day when a cable or satellite operator tells its customers what even one channel in a bundle adds to their total bill, much less gives customers any way to act on that information.

Since the pay-TV industry is so militantly opposed to a la carte pricing, one other option is to vote against the entire malfunctioning market. That's the remedy I chose last year - not to pay for TV at all, relying instead on over-the-air broadcasts and Internet streams.

Yes, that's a radical step. It's almost as radical as the prospect of shutting 17 million paying customers out of watching the end of the World Series.

robp@washpost.com

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