Consumer Confidential

David Lazarus: CBS, Time Warner win, viewers lose in cable fight

DAVID LAZARUS, consumer columnist and contributor to American Public Media’s Marketplace radio programSeptember 24, 2013 

So here’s the final score: Time Warner Cable got some but not all of what it wanted. CBS got pretty much everything that it wanted.

And after a month of being denied access to CBS, Showtime and other popular channels, Time Warner subscribers got the certainty of even costlier monthly bills and the assurance that money-grubbing squabbles among media giants will continue.

Excuse me if I’m not exactly thrilled about the conclusion to the latest in a series of go-ahead-make-my-day confrontations between greedy corporations.

Moreover, why aren’t our elected officials racing to pass legislation aimed at finally giving consumers a break from the endless cycle of rising pay-TV bills?

“We need regulators who are willing to stop powerful special interests, whether broadcasters or cable firms, that use consumers as pawns in their spats,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

“In the long run, we need better rules, including a la carte pricing, to help change the video marketplace,” he said.

The heart of the current blatant rip-off is the practice of bundling — selling a bunch of channels as a package to pay-TV companies and their subscribers. Take the example of Viacom.

A viewer might want Comedy Central just for “The Daily Show.” Or maybe Nickelodeon for its kids’ shows. Or maybe MTV or VH1 for whatever they air nowadays (I stopped watching when music videos went away).

But you can’t get just the channel or channels you desire. You have to take everything Viacom sells, including CMT’s country-flavored programming; Spike’s macho offerings; assorted Nickelodeon spinoffs, such as Nick Jr. and Nicktoons; and Logo TV’s gay-themed lineup.

This is how every major programmer does it. Maybe you want AMC for “The Walking Dead” or “Breaking Bad.” But AMC Networks will also make you take WE TV and the Sundance Channel.

Fox is happy to offer its FXM movie channel, but you also have to receive FX and the National Geographic Channel.

Not a sports fan? Tough. You won’t receive Disney’s channels unless you pony up about $5 a month — the largest amount of any cable channel — for ESPN and its various offshoots. Fox has nearly a dozen of its own sports channels to force down your throat.

Comcast runs the world’s largest cable network. It also owns NBC, 15 cable channels, 13 regional sports and news networks and more than 60 international channels.

The entire system is rigged to keep consumers paying as much as possible for hundreds of channels they likely never watch. According to the ratings company Nielsen, the average pay-TV subscriber watches only about 17 channels on a regular basis.

For all their PR blather about being the consumer’s best buddy, both programmers and distributors want nothing so much as to keep fleecing people by selling them products they don’t want.

The solution is obvious: an end to bundling and the introduction of a la carte programming. Let the market decide which channels sink or swim and at what prices.

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