Public Knowledge has long sought to support independent programmers because a media landscape dominated by programming created by major corporations will not reward creativity, give a voice to marginalized groups, or help foster informed public debate.
This is why the story of One America News Network (OAN) is sad. There are some murky details about how it was founded, but it was clearly founded to be a right-wing outlet. Regardless, even some liberal commentators, while criticizing its opinion pieces, saw its news coverage as reasonable. And, at a high level, there’s nothing wrong with a pay TV company looking for more content that might appeal to a range of differing ideological audiences, or even looking to create a competitor to Fox News. In the past, Public Knowledge worked with conservative outlets such as OAN and Newsmax to oppose Sinclair’s effort to buy Tribune Media, because we believe strongly that consolidated media gatekeepers threaten the health of our democracy — whether the voices silenced are left-leaning or right-leaning.
But there is a huge difference between offering a conservative opinion and peddling conspiracy theories and falsehoods that threaten our democratic institutions. In the last two years, OAN’s support for the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen and the fact that it’s consistently giving airtime to conspiracy theories and misinformation on COVID-19, moves it from a participant in the marketplace of ideas to a peddler of toxic lies. We therefore support the call for AT&T to drop OAN from its programming line up. (AT&T recently spun out DirecTV into a new corporate entity, so it has less direct control, but it retains 70% ownership.) Whatever the backstory of OAN’s creation, there is no reason for AT&T, and its satellite service DirecTV, to continue supporting it today. For the same reason, we call on other pay TV providers that carry it, like CenturyLink Prism and Verizon Fios, to drop it as well.
OAN will remain accessible to anyone with a broadband connection. One of the great advantages of the internet is that it is a way for anyone to express themselves, and that includes expression that I personally and many others do not approve of. But on the internet, people with no interest in OAN never have to visit its website. By contrast, today, millions of pay TV subscribers pay not just for content they are not interested in, but that they might also find morally offensive, or even socially destructive. So, beyond dropping programming like OAN that is truly beyond the pale, we also call on the pay TV industry to ensure that subscribers don’t have to pay for content they find truly morally offensive.
I don’t want to relitigate the merits of a la carte cable here.
Ok, maybe a little. Critics of a la carte have always missed the mark with their simple models of how bundles can be beneficial to subscribers. They make uncontroversial theoretical points that do not reflect the reality of the actual channel bundles on offer, where people who do not like sports or watch broadcast networks nevertheless have to pay substantially more on their bills to subsidize those who do. The situation was less a Food Network fan not wanting to pay for SyFy and vice versa so they could save at most pennies each month, but more like cutting your monthly bill by $20 or $30.
But another strong case for a la carte came not from consumers and consumer advocates who were looking to save people money, but from people who did not want to pay for objectionable content. So, the Parents Television Council and other more socially conservative groups have long advocated for a la carte.
OAN is a special case. Pay TV companies generally structure their offerings based on commercial considerations, not editorial ones. I don’t view Cox or Comcast as trying to express themselves in their channel lineups, nor as endorsing the viewpoints expressed on one channel or another. But merely carrying a channel does inevitably endorse it to a certain extent, and even that is too much in the case of OAN. For OAN, a la carte is not the answer.
More broadly though, the fact is that the conservative groups who objected to paying for content that they found morally objectionable were right. Beyond OAN, why should a liberal pay for NewsMax or Fox News? This isn’t just about news, but news and opinion programming is the clearest case. Yes, people should be open to hearing thoughtful points of view they disagree with, but I might suggest that cable TV “news” is not the best avenue for that kind of engagement in the public sphere. Similarly I would not suggest that a conservative watch MSNBC talking head shows to engage with the best of what the left has to offer.
With this context, we support the call for AT&T to drop OAN, and think that other pay TV providers that carry it should, as well. Pay TV companies should also recognize that today’s media landscape and political environment have changed, and that giving viewers more choice in terms of what programming to support is not just the right thing to do, but may also make commercial sense. Viewers have more options today than even when OAN was founded, and pay TV companies have been losing subscribers for years now. If pay TV companies cannot adapt, including by giving subscribers more choice, they might simply die. While Public Knowledge has had many differences with the pay TV industry over the years, their demise would be a shame.