Thursday, May 7, 2009

Capitalism and Cable Television

by Norman Markowitz

My deregulated cable company, a huge enterprise which owns major New York sports teams, did something dirty to me this week. I also discovered that it did the same thing to a number of my friends and colleagues, who are if anything angrier than I am. I am sure that it and other cable companies have done the same thing to large numbers of people.

What they did, with the coming digitalization of U.S. television, was to take off a whole group of popular channels from "basic cable" and in effect give viewers the "choice" of accepting that or purchasing a cable box for an extra $7 a month for each TV (with with a $1.50 fee for each box over two added). The woman I spoke to was very apologetic and actually said that the pitch she was giving me added insult to injury. Another salesperson tried to encourage a friend of mine to get various "plans" that would cost her more money. She responded that she wanted a plan to cost her less money and is now angrily looking for other options.

What does this have to do with capitalism? First, she and I were angry that MSNBC, which is in the Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz shows the only news network which provides on a regular basis progressive programming, was taken off while Fox News remained.

She and others saw this in conspiratorial political terms, especially when the cable people told her that MSNBC asked to be taken off (since this would mean that they would reach less viewers for their advertising, this made absolutely no sense). Also, NBC's business channel, CNBC, was kept on "basic cable." And, in the best example of all, CNN was initially taken off for a day or two and then put back on with no explanation. I assumed that once CNN discovered that Fox was on basic and it wasn't, it demanded and got immediate restoration. The NBC moguls for whatever reason are more willing to abandon what is their best commodity.

What should be done? How about regulation which would both sharply reduce costs to viewers and give them rational choices between basic and premium services.

When I first got cable around 20 years ago, it cost about ten dollars for basic and all sorts of stations that were really valuable were included. Then over time the "package deals" began, and then special cable boxes and services which were, like the deregulated transportation system, geared to providing benefits to those who purchased expensive items while sharply reducing, eliminating and making more expensive basic services (for example, good deals on plan trips from New York to London while the cost of going from Newark to Pittsburgh both increased
and service became more difficult).

It will take serious federal policy to stop the cable companies from perpetrating these outrages. As a friend of mine said, the cable companies today and at best a little less disliked by the public than the insurance companies because like the insurance companies, they constantly raise the rates the charge while reducing and/or redefining benefits.

At the very least, the administration and for that matter the Democrats should demand the restoration of MSNBC to those cable systems which have removed it, since the station, at a time when print journalism is near collapse, aids them the way newspapers like the pre Rupe Murdoch New York Post (a liberal labor papers until the Murdoch takeover of the 1970s) used to aid liberal and progressive politicians and administrations. Purchasing a cable box from cable companies to see Olbermann, Maddow and Schultz is like paying a regressive tax to see programs that criticize, among other things, regressive taxation.