Hopefully, by the time you read this, Fox and Cablevision will have settled their dispute and returned control of channels 5 and 9 to the viewing audience. Until then, Cablevision subscribers will have to do without many of our favorite programs, not to mention Giants’ football and — perish the thought — the World Series. But even if the media giants manage to settle, the bill will be passed on to the little guy — the consumer.
The roots of the dispute go back to the 1992 Cable TV Act, which allowed broadcast stations to seek “retransmission fees” from cable providers to permit them to air the exact same content that broadcast networks provided for free. Before that, broadcasters relied on the “must carry” provision of the law, allowing broadcasters to actually compel cable providers to carry their content. How the worm has turned!
Now Fox, like ABC/Disney before it, is fighting over how much it can get from cable providers like Cablevision and Time Warner, wasting money on newspaper ads sniping back and forth. Who loses? The consumer, who is blacked out, used as a negotiating pawn and then ultimately pays the freight in higher cable bills.
The “free agency era” in pro sports provides a historic antecedant. When free agency began, players’ salaries soared, and owners cringed. Nonetheless, the baseball barons and the players’ union figured out a way to protect each other. Players’ salaries have never been higher, and baseball ownership continues to be profitable. And for fans? We get the $4,000-a-game box seat. Fans and consumers were not at the bargaining table.
We can’t let that happen here.
I have introduced a resolution in the Council calling for an end to retransmission fees. Broadcasters like Fox and ABC operate over the public airwaves with a public license. Having seduced the majority of TV viewers off of the rabbit ears and onto the cable box, they should not be permitted to start to charge us for what was once free. They can make their money off of the advertising revenue as they did before. Use of public air waves is a public trust and a public benefit.
Congress must act to end the insanity, to stop the programming interruptions and to protect the consumer, and it must act now. If it doesn’t, the next $4,000 box seat will be the seat in front of your TV set.
Councilman Lew Fidler represents Bergen Beach, Canarsie, Flatlands, Marine Park, Mill Basin, Gerritsen Beach and Sheepshead Bay.