On Cable Issue, Weiner & Fidler At Odds (For Now)

Congressman Weiner and Councilman Fidler in a pointlessly photoshopped image.

Councilman Lew Fidler isn’t finding an ally in Congressman Anthony Weiner for his crusade to protect consumers from feuding cable companies and content providers. But the councilman says it’s just a matter of time before he successfully woos the federal representative to his aid.

Fidler is pushing a City Council resolution to urge the federal government to support new rules governing deal-making between over-the-air broadcasters and their cable foes.

In a comment left on Sheepshead Bites, the councilman asked constituents to contact their federal representatives and “DEMAND that broadcast stations—the ones who seek and accept a license from the FCC to use YOUR public airwaves—NOT be permitted to charge retransmission fees. I will stay on this soapbox and continue to raise this issue tho the City Council has limited power over this largely Federal issue.”

Fidler will need the aid of federal representatives, since the companies are governed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Legislators will need to direct the agency to take up the issue and enact new policies.

But Congressman Weiner is reluctant to get involved, and said the contracts are a private business issue and should be left between the participants.

“These fights between content providers and cable companies are recurring, and Councilman Fidler is right that the losers in these fights are usually consumers,” Weiner said in an interview with Sheepshead Bites. “But at the end of the day, these are contracts between two big entities, between big cable companies and big content providers. I’m reluctant to say that one side’s always right and one side’s always wrong.”

Fidler isn’t deflated by the congressman’s stance, though. He said he hasn’t had the opportunity to discuss the resolution with the representative, and once he does Weiner will come around.

“I have not reached out to [Weiner’s office], I have not explained my perspective and the perspective of the people I’ve talked to about this,” he said. “I’d love to hear his response after he’s heard what I have to say and ruminate about it. I think Anthony is very well tuned into what regular people think and is very capable of expressing the indignation of people and once I talk to him will take my point of view.”

While Fidler was pushing the issue in the City Council, Weiner was working on securing health care benefits for Ground Zero workers. The councilman said he thought it would be in poor taste to distract Weiner while working on such weighty legislation.

Fidler’s resolution seeks to eliminate cable retransmission fees for over-the-air broadcasters, the handful of channels like NBC, CBS and ABC that a cable subscriber would still get if they unplugged their cable box. Until 1992, broadcasters were prevented from charging such fees because they operate for free on valuable public airwaves owned and regulated by the federal government, and they’re considered a public service.

But in 1992, new regulations allowed those companies to charge for retransmission, a cost reflected in consumer’s monthly cable bill. When contract agreements stall as broadcasters demand higher prices, screens go black, just as Cablevision’s customers experienced during the last Academy Awards on ABC. For most cable subscribers, figuring out how to return to over-the-air signals on their TV is difficult at best, sometimes requiring an entirely different cord from the antenna to be found and installed.

“If you apply for a public permit to use public airwaves and then try to charge me for the same content after essentially seducing me away from the way I used to get it for free” it becomes a matter of principal, said the councilman. “You seduced me away from the rabbit ears, and Lord knows I can’t go back to the rabbit ears. Who knows if they’d even work?”

Fidler’s resolution coincides with contract negotiations between ABC and Time Warner, and subscribers to the cable company have been bombarded with ads from both companies that puts viewers right in the middle of the fight. But Fidler said this kind of tactic is a move by ABC to reshape the playing field to the advantage of all broadcasters. ABC’s negotiations also include the Disney Channel and ESPN, two valuable properties that gives it leverage to raise rates across the board. According to Fidler, if ABC receives higher payment, it clears the way for the other broadcasters to demand more – a cost ultimately taken on by the viewer.

That’s why he hopes to stop the issue in its track and, at the very least, get FCC arbitration on contract deals to keep costs down.

“The big boys can’t sit there and argue as to how much they’re going to pass onto me without me being at the table,” Fidler said. “I want the FCC sitting at the table and saying, ‘Guys, given the cost of what you produce and the number of people who watch it, your asking price is absurd.’ … There needs to be someone sitting at the table that is guarding the cost passed on to consumers.”

But ultimately, he said, arbitration has its limits and the elimination of retransmission fees is the only sure bet. With arbitration, the congressman, an ardent baseball fanatic, likened it to his favorite sport.

“Baseball has an arbitration process and it doesn’t stop a player from getting a $5 million contract,” he said. “Now I can’t even afford to go to a game.”