August 12, 2013
CBS and Time Warner Cable have been engaged in a contract fight that has left millions of residents in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Dallas without access to the network's programming on their TVs and computers for almost a week. There is no claim to moral high ground here, just dollars and cents.
CBS wants Time Warner Cable to pay more for its programming, and it also wants the ability to sell that programming to other distributors of TV shows and movies like Netflix and Intel, which is planning a new television service. Time Warner Cable says it is willing to pay more but does not want to change its contracts with CBS. The terms of the contracts have not been made public. Lost in such cable battles are frustrated consumers, who pay for TV shows through their cable bills but have no representation at the negotiating table even though media and cable companies rely on public resources like spectrum and rights of way. (On Friday, the chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission said she would intervene if the two sides did not reach a deal.)
There were 91 blackouts of TV networks on cable and satellite systems across the country last year, up from 12 in 2010, according to the American Television Alliance, a group backed by cable companies. Contract disputes are increasing because new technology has strengthened the hands of networks like CBS by giving them other outlets, including Netflix, Amazon and Apple, through which to sell their content. The networks are rapidly becoming less dependent on traditional distributors like cable and satellite companies.
While Time Warner Cable customers could find ways to watch CBS by, for instance, buying antennas, why should they have to when their cable bill includes the cost of that programming? In fact, the cost of expanded basic cable, the most popular service, has risen 3.4 times faster than inflation from 1995 to 2009, according to a 2011 report by the F.C.C. (The number of channels in cable plans has also gone up during that time, but most consumers watch only a fraction of the networks to which they have access.) Not surprisingly, those higher bills have led to rising profits for both broadcasters like CBS and distributors like Time Warner Cable.
We don't presume to advise media or cable companies on their negotiating tactics. But infuriating customers who are already annoyed at ever higher costs and have other options - like giving up their cable connections and relying only on broadcast signals and Netflix - seems a bad business move for both sides. These disputes can only make those options seem more appealing. New York Times editorial
NBC News is placing a bet that it can harness live smartphone video to deliver news faster. The news outlet is expected to formally announce Monday it has purchased startup Stringwire, a move that will allow it to beam user-generated video content from cell phones around the world to its studios in New York. The news was confirmed in tweets by Stringwire developer Phil Groman and NBC News digital chief Vivian Schiller.
The intent behind the acquisition is to turn eyewitnesses to breaking news events into the network's camera operators, delivering video from multiple angles in real time, Schiller said. "You could get 30 people all feeding video, holding up their smartphones, and then we could look at that," Schiller told the Times. "We'll be able to publish and broadcast some of them." The service enlists the legion of Twitter users who tweet about witnessing a live event. Prospective camera operators will be sent a tweet and invited to click on a link and point their handset camera at the event. Live video will then begin streaming back to the network without the need for a special app, the Times reported. CNET
Sinclair Broadcast Group is on a buying rampage of television stations that is barely described by the words "media consolidation." The company is closing a deal to buy Fisher Communications Inc., which owned 20 TV stations in Washington, Oregon and California, and three Seattle radio stations. Now it is in hot pursuit of the Allbritton family holdings. They own television stations in Birmingham, Ala., Little Rock, Ark., Tulsa, Okla., Harrisburg, Pa., Charleston, S.C., and Roanoke, Va.
But the jewel in the Allbritton crown is the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. Sinclair would also pick up Allbritton's local cable news channel in D.C. - plus Politico, a place to be for political junkies. Sinclair is in step to have 149 television stations in 76 markets, and have the capacity to create a national cable network. The industry chatter attributed the spending spree on local TV to anticipated income from subscriber fees and campaign advertising every two years. There's not a lot of talk about investments in news gathering and quality journalism. Indeed, the predictable pattern is the low-overhead, recycled use of stories by local affiliates.
A comment by former Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps only becomes more acute with the passage of time and gazillion-dollar buying sprees: "You cannot have diversity of viewpoint without having diversity of ownership," Copps said around the time a federal court restored a ban on one company owning a newspaper and television station in the same market. The Sinclair consolidation plan needs close FCC review. Craig Aaron, CEO and president of the media watchdog group Free Press, put it well: Viewers need "the FCC to ditch its rubber stamp and start doing its job to preserve localism, competition and diversity." Seattle Times editorial
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