The $4,000 Seat… In Front Of Your Home TV Set

Lewis A. Fidler

By Councilman Lew Fidler

There they go again. They big boys are fighting and you know who is going to pay the bill.

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, the National League Championship playoffs 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.

Some folks may be old enough to remember when our neighborhood movie theaters—wait, do you even remember neighborhood movie theaters?—all posted signs that read “Stop pay TV” on their marquis. The newly burgeoning cable TV system response was that “pay TV”, now known as cable TV, was for enhanced service. But the 1992 Cable TV Act changed all that when broadcast stations were permitted to seek “retransmission fees.”
What is a “retransmission fee”? That is the fee that broadcast stations seek from cable providers to permit them to air the exact same content that broadcast networks provide over free public air space. Before the 1992 Act, when cable was used more generally to provide TV programming to areas that could not receive clear air signals, 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!

So while Fox, and ABC/Disney before them, fight over how much they 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.

History teaches us to learn its lessons. I commend your attention to the “free agency era” in pro sports like baseball. 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 NYC 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.

My colleague, Councilmember Dan Garodnick, has introduced a resolution asking Congress to require binding mediation for all cable stations – broadcast and non-broadcast alike – when negotiating cable fees. That plan would also keep those stations on the air while the negotiations continued, ending the game of using consumers as pawns.

Congress must act to end the insanity, to stop the programming interruptions and to protect the consumer, and it must act now. If they don’t, the next $4,000 box seat will be your seat in front of your TV set.

Council Member Lew Fidler (D-Brooklyn) is the Council’s Assistant Majority Leader.