Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Clash of the Greedy Slimeballs

Normally, I try to avoid including any factual information in this daily blog. That stuff just gets in the way of my latest half-baked opinions. But there's lots of factual-type tidbits in the following and for that, I am indebted to the work of David Whitley of the Orlando Sentinel and Breuse Hickman of Florida Today. They are both a lot smarter and harder working than I am.

In my neck of the woods, the big cable provider is something called "Bright House." I know this because they genially send me a bill every month; sometimes it's even accurate. Like all cable providers in America, Bright House does not pay local affiliates to include their programming on the system. Local affiliates are -- or were, anyway -- broadcast outlets who give away their signal for free, making their money from ad revenues. They have to do this, by the way. You and I own the airwaves, they don't.

But we don't own lengthy bits of wire and that's how most households in America these days receive their television. A bit back in second place is satellite. Currently only about 8% of American televisions still receive the through-the-air broadcast signal exclusively.

In most cases, cable providers include the local broadcast stations as part of their basic plan, which they charge for. In other words, even though they don't pay to include local broadcast television, they still charge for it. For a long time, this has rankled local affiliates who know cash when they smell it and want their cut.

My local CBS affiliate is WKMG in Orlando, which I watch on my Bright House cable. On February 18, WKMG aired a number of commercials and an editorial announcing that they were demanding Bright House pay them to include CBS programming on the basic cable. If Bright House did not capitulate, they continued, WKMG would be removed from the Bright House package.

The current agreement between Bright House and WKMG is good up till March 17. Three days later, March Madness college basketball programming, an annual ratings bonanza, begins on CBS. The Masters golf tournament, also usually a ratings winner for CBS, begins shortly after that. Amazing how the timing works.

Obviously, like the recent writers strike, what we have here are two huge greedy outfits demanding a bigger slice of a pie we, the TV viewers, provide. Neither deserves an iota of sympathy, but are either of them in the right?

Bright House's point: Broadcast affiliates reach way more people on our cable than they would with airwave signals alone. They should be pleased we choose to include them at all and financially speaking, the increased ad revenue they make from having a larger audience should be compensation enough.

WKMG's point: Cable providers make a dumptruck-full of money based largely on a signal we provide that they get for free. They pay to include other basic-tier cable channels like CNN and TNT -- none of which draw the viewership, or cable subscribers, that network television does. Why shouldn't we get paid too?

I hate to say it, because it will undoubtedly mean that my monthly Bright House bill will end up being even higher than it is now, but probably WKMG has a tiny edge in this argument. The cable providers probably should pay a (small) fee to include popular local affiliate television. Not as much as they do for exclusive cable content, but something. Something small.

While this specific example is a local story in the Central Florida area, make no mistake, it's a drama that will play out all over the country very soon, especially if Bright House caves. Every local affiliate in America will want the same deal WKMG ends up with.

The bottom line for me: if Bright House digs in its heels on this -- and it might; it already has with the NFL Network and Fox Sports -- I will not be seeing CBS programming after March 17. I live in an area where I can't receive the broadcast signal, even if I dig in the closet and find the old rabbit ears. That's one of the reasons I got cable in the first place.

Which sort of proves WKMG's point, I guess. Sigh.

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