Posted by: coloradokiwi | November 11, 2007

FCC to Big Cable: Your days of bullying are over (until our next decision)

The one thing you have to appreciate about modern day conservatism at the Federal level is that the cognitive dissonance bordering on severe schizophrenia that afflicts so many of our best known and loved officials is not isolated among powerful politicians and advisors. No, even less well known appointees are definitely part of the secretive malevolent authorities who execute policy today, such as FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin.

First the good news: the FCC has announced that it will begin opening up competition in cable television:

The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to impose significant new regulations to open the cable television market to independent programmers and rival video services after determining that cable companies have become too dominant in the industry…The commission’s conclusion that the cable industry has grown too large will be used to justify a raft of new cable television rules and proposals. They include a cap that would prevent the nation’s largest cable company, Comcast Corporation, from growing, and would prevent other large cable companies, like Time Warner, from making any new large cable acquisitions.

The idea here is that the caps, in addition to opening up the market in significant ways, could mean that prices go down and consumers would have more choice, starting with being able to choose better packages and/or channels. (More on this below.) Yay! Re-regulation that hits the big guys and helps consumers!

Further:

Mr. Martin has repeatedly criticized the companies for rapidly raising rates and providing many channels that few viewers watch. He also expressed alarm about the close business ties between the cable companies and many of the largest producers of programs.

Alarm? Really? Well, at least he noticed and took a dim view of it (finally). It’s a good sign that the FCC is finally raising its eyebrows at least to the sorts of dodgy behavior that we could charitably call synergy. So this is at last a glorious repudiation of media consolidation and conglomeration!

Um, except:

The decision comes as Mr. Martin is about to formally announce his plan to relax a different media ownership rule. That rule has restricted a company from owning a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same community.

Wait. So Comcast will no longer have virtual monopoly and be able to dictate prices and packages in cable, but they (or more likely even bigger fish) might be able to put on a media full court press? As if there weren’t already enough nefarious ties and political shenanigans among media owners and personalities, they’re making it easier for them to effectively run all of the media in a particular market, which is to say, as many markets as they can up to the point of the official cut-off for monopoly? What happens if/when that too is “de-regulated”? Could News Corp. one day buy up everything?

Oh, but it gets better:

Consumer groups applauded the cable television decision, although some speculated that it could give Mr. Martin some political cover as he sets about taking other aspects of media control in a deregulatory direction.

Unless I’ve missed something, the Times appears to be insinuating that there is more de-regulation coming down the pipe besides what they’ve already mentioned. That sentence “other aspects of media control in a deregulatory direction” is extremely ominous.

But all right, we’ll bitch about that when it happens. In the meantime, let’s speculate a little about what this could mean if certain companies get their act together. First off, the easy stuff: smaller companies will enter the market and compete with the big guys either by allowing customers to customize the channels they want (not all that likely yet), or select from a handful of specialized packages based on the broad viewing habits of most demographics (Spike bundled with ESPN, Disney bundled with Nickelodeon, etc.). Also, possibly, consumers may be able to finally break the stranglehold of the big packages. For instance, currently I pay $52.00/month, roughly, for getting an ASSLOAD of channels from Comcast. This would be great if 80% of it wasn’t shit. There are only between 10-20 channels I watch with any kind of regularity, and On Demand fills in the rest (if I’m in the mood or have the time for a movie, say). Considering how much I get versus how much I use, I’d say that in a general sense I’m getting hosed.

And the thing is, it isn’t just about having people pay for more than they can watch: they purposefully hold out on select channels in high demand due to only a handful of these channels’ programming, particularly ESPN and Comedy Central. If you want either of those channels on Comcast, you have to upgrade from their basic (and much more reasonably priced) package. It’s fucking bullshit. This FCC ruling could very well be the death knell for that kind of monkey business.

Further down the road, the ruling could also very well usher in an era of the ultimate free for all distribution chain, whereby even specific shows can be streamed to you, rather than via packages or whole channels. Think about a world in which your cable is on demand everything: you pay a nominal fee per program, or per month for a certain number of programs (paying slightly extra if you go over your allotment), and your “what’s on” menu has everything that’s on everywhere. It’s searchable. It’s comprehensive. And potentially, since the system is in place for buying shows individually, it could even be commercial free! Picture it as a combination of iTunes and cell phone plans, only you’re not as likely to be dicked around because the really big players are unable to get any bigger, which means they have to compete with a lot more companies for customers and as a result probably treat you better. The best part here is that it has the potential to nudge the production end of the industry toward the direction it may be headed, anyway: greater variety, better quality, more reactive to its core audience, and undoubtedly more niche-oriented. Which is to say: the banal, stupid bullshit that has to be included in an otherwise pretty solid show is no longer there becaus they no longer have to try to sell cars to John Q. Dunderhead in Branson, Missouri (and since stuff may not be technically considered “free to air” any more, and it’s sent only to those who asked for it rather than broadcast, odds are the oppressive censorship we have on, say, boobies, would be “de-regulated” too). If there is still sponsorship of programs, sponsors can be much more specific about their ads for the audience they want–which overall is a good thing. Seen any shows with older or kinda ugly people in them? Currently the reason for this is that old people don’t buy the sort of stuff that’s advertized on television, so there are very few shows made for old people. In the new era, that could change.

Want to watch a Japense game show? Now you can. Ever wonder what Al Jazeera in English is like? No sissy carrier ban is going to stop you! Tired of getting stuck watching blowout games in your area while being painfully reminded via intermittent highlight updates about the barn-burner people are seeing in another part of the country? Now you don’t have to!

***Aside: most sports have already undergone significant rule changes in order to cater to the demands of television and its advertisers. If people now have the ability to switch around on games when things get boring, among other things, what rule changes will come into place? Also, last week’s viewers of Colts-Pats were locked into that game regardless of what happened, and the advertising fees for that were approaching Super Bowl-like figures. If viewers had the ability to make the switch, as an advertiser there’s no fucking way I’d want to be locked into huge figures for my ad spot. Would we therefore have tracking devices spread throughout the cable system to monitor this in real time? This would be great for more accurate ratings, but bad for personal privacy, because then it would become just like the internet.***

Of course there may be a dark side, as well: the atomization of popular culture, overcharging for particular shows, the destruction of channel-surfing, and the no doubt rare but not rare enough instances where there are a plethora of companies in the game, but there is a “local” monopoly in a remote or discreet area. I still get angry thinking about how where I grew up our sole county cable provider refused to carry MTV and took off Comedy Central after about two months of awesomeness–the replacements for each network were, respectively, CMT and TBN (God, I wish I were kidding).

Anyway, we’ll see how this plays out. But on the whole I think this FCC decision is a good thing, which has been unfortunately such a rare thing from them over the last, oh, ten years or so. But it’s a nice thing to savor in wake of the no doubt horrifying decisions yet to come down the pipe.

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