CBS crossed a line
from permissible hardball tactics to unfair consumer abuse when it blocked TWC
broadband subscribers from accessing content on CBS.com. The FCC needs to
enforce rules on consumer protection, and Congress needs to fix the broken
system of retransmission consent.
Time Warner Cable (TWC) subscribers find themselves
suffering through no fault of their own in what has become an all too familiar
scenario for cable and satellite TV subscribers. After months of negotiation,
CBS and Time Warner Cable could not come to terms for carriage of CBS’
broadcast programming or its Showtime premium cable network. As a result, Time
Warner Cable video subscribers can
no longer watch CBS or Showtime in several major markets.
But then CBS went further. To put more pressure on TWC, CBS
blocked all subscribers to TWC broadband from accessing certain content on its
CBS.com website. This punishes not just the Time Warner Cable video
subscribers in the markets impacted by the blackout, but also TWC broadband subscribers
who live outside the blacked out markets, and those that rely
on free over-the-air TV or use a pay TV provider other than TWC (e.g., DIRECTV).
CBS’ blocking tactic clearly violates the ‘rules of
engagement’ Congress intended when it created the “retransmission consent”
system that allows CBS to pull its signal and demand payment from Time Warner
Cable. The FCC needs to use the power Congress gave it to protect the public
and the public interest by making it clear to CBS (and other broadcasters in
the future) that punishing broadband subscribers to put pressure on a cable
company over a carriage dispute is not
Not Choosing Sides,
Protecting The Public.
CBS and Time Warner Cable have spent lots of time and effort
trying to persuade the public that the other company caused this mess.
Bluntly, no one cares. They just want the abuse to stop.
Television subscribers are sick of being held hostage in disputes and, through
no fault of their own, not getting the programming for which they pay way, way
waaaaay too much.
For reason you can read about at length here,
Congress in 1992 gave broadcasters the right to demand cable operators pay to
retransmit this free broadcasting signal, thus spawning the current
consumer-abuse machine known as “retransmission consent.” But Congress did not
leave the public entirely at the mercy of whatever consumer abusing practices
might evolve from this primordial ooze of regulatory protectionism. Congress
empowered the FCC to set some limits on the steel cage death match between
cable and broadcasters.
Unfortunately, as I rather
infamously wrote here in 2010, the FCC has traditionally preferred to fold
its hands and sit on the sidelines rather than do its job as a referee making
sure it’s a fair fight and that the viewing public doesn’t get hurt.
But the FCC doesn’t need to actually resolve the dispute
between CBS and TWC. It can – and should — tell CBS to
stop blocking broadband subscribers from getting content on CBS.com.
We need the FCC to step up, do its job and protect the millions of broadband
subscribers who have nothing to do with this fight. The FCC may believe that Congress
authorized a steel cage, no holds barred, death match between cable providers
and broadcasters around access to local broadcast signals; it did not authorize
CBS to drag in millions of broadband subscribers and punish them as a means of
putting additional pressure on Time Warner Cable.
Finally, we have a lot more at stake here than just the
current fight between CBS and TWC. If the FCC continues to sit on the
sidelines, then this will become an acceptable tactic for future retransmission
consent fights. It used to be that only actual pay TV subscribers had to deal
with this. Now all consumers will get to share the pain – unless the FCC steps
up and does its job to keep this fight contained.
CBS President and CEO Les Moonves declared
last week: “we are at war with Time Warner Cable.” But that doesn’t make
millions of Time Warner Cable broadband subscribers who have nothing to do with
this fight acceptable ‘collateral damage.’ Congress set rules of engagement that protect consumers, and
we expect the FCC to enforce them.