What about re-transmission consent? (Time Warner v. Fox)

What is retransmission consent an why is it importnat to me?  The current story about Time Warner and Fox prompts this post.  Once upon a time (prior to the cable act of 1992) cable systems (your local provider who brings a cable into your home) could just take the programming of the local stations and put it on the cable system along side of programming that the cable system owned and spent money on or purchased, often from other cable providers.

So a typical channel lineup cost (pre-1992) might look like this: ESPN $2.00, CNN Networks $1.00, Lifetime, E!, A&E, etc. $.25 each, local origination channels $0 but the cable system might spend hundreds of thousands of dollars installing equipment for a local studio, hiring staff to run/coordinate the operation, etc, and then come the local television stations ABC $0, NBC $0, CBS $0, Fox $0.  Where was the viewing at that time? Seventy-five percent, perhaps more, of the viewing was on the networks and the cable channels had yet to blossom into what they are now.  At that time, a cable system could plan on spending approx 25% of its subscriber fees (what you pay for basic cable) on programming costs, with the most of any single network going to ESPN.  So cable systems received value (popular programming) from the networks for which they did not have to pay.

Enter the cable act of 1992 (technically the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992) and Congress changed the landscape by requiring cable systems to pay television networks in the same manner as it paid ESPN and the others.  This resulted in reasonably large payments to the networks.  However, the balance is a complex one, for example, TBS carries the series “Friends” which is much more valuable since it aired on the networks.  So while cable has eroded the audience share of the television networks, it is oftentimes with programming made successful on the networks.

With this audience share erosion  of the television networks (and therefore networks are hard-pressed to raise advertising rates), there seems to be a karmic-like balance with the cable systems having to pay the networks for the programming that helps people to decide to subscribe to cable.  The network shows are still popular and bring in audience.  For example, at stake in the Time Warner vs. Fox case was whether Time Warner subscribers would be able to receive shows such as  “American Idol” and “The Simpsons.”

Does the cost of paying the networks raise the cost of a cable bill? Perhaps.  But there are a lot of other things in your cable bill that are management decisions like how fast they upgrade their systems for features you and I are not subscribing to, and what profit they will make and even the amount of their executive compensation.  Since the busines particulars are beyond our control, I will not go into detail on them.  the central question is whether content creators are deserving of getting paid.  Content is expensive to produce, so my answer is “yes, certainly in this case.”

Does this mean I might lose access to my favorite programming? Probably not in the long run.  It is in the interest of both parties (the network and the cable system) to reach an agreement.  The cable system wants the programming and the programmer/network can’t survive without enough people seeing its programming.  So in the event that programming is pulled from a cable system (and it has happened in the past), it will probably be back in the near future.  The pulling of programming means that the proper marketplace value of the programming and the distribution channel did not reach equalibrium, or at least close enough that the two sides could sign a contract.

This is a complex topic and causes the eyes of law students all over the country to glaze over.  But is is important.  Hundreds of millions of dollars change hands each contract cycle on retransmission consent and lots of local consumers are played off by both sides during negotiations.  the cable systems try to gain consumer sympathy by saying bills are going up and the networks try to gain consumer attention by telling them that the cabe system is te reason they are going to lose their favorite programming.

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