Thoughts on Must-Carry

It appears I do these updates in batches.  I’ve been settling into my new semester, which has left me quiet of late, but I saw some news today I simply couldn’t ignore.

Cablevision, a cable provider serving the NY metro area, is seeking a Supreme Court hearing over must-carry laws.  If you’re unfamiliar with them, must-carry laws mandate that cable providers must carry local television channels.  The laws were created so cable wouldn’t destroy local network television.  Cablevision is arguing that competition is now significant enough that the networks should be able to survive on their own.  The case concerns a network trying to expand it’s coverage into new areas – which Cablevision opposes.  I’m not even sure I agree with it, but I do see the potential havoc that can be unleashed by a Supreme Court decision in favor of Cablevision.

Cable providers still enjoy de fact monopolies in some areas.  For example, here in Somerville, you can’t get Time Warner, Verizon or Comcast.  You’re choices for television are Cablevision or DirectTV for satellite.  My apartment building isn’t friendly towards satellite dishes, so my choices are Cablevision.  That’s it.  So if Cablevision doesn’t have to carry my local stations, where am I supposed to get them from?  Likewise, if you live in some parts of Manhattan, you have Time Warner, because they have control of that area.  So a supreme court decision that would drop must-carry laws could put local networks in jeopardy.

See, television is in trouble.  Their audience is leaving for the internet, and they’re having a hard time pulling in to ad dollars they used to.  Subscription models like HBO don’t use ads, but customers need to have a cable service hooked up to get them.  Cable providers and networks alike are looking for ways to cut costs.  That led to the retrans battles we saw between Time Warner and Fox as well as between Cablevision and Scripps Networks at the start of the year.  NBC and whoever exactly owns them at this point in time are facing pressure from local affiliate stations to get their act together and start delivering the ratings, and add dollars that follow them – which is what lead to the disaster that got Leno back in the Tonight Show and caused Conan to leave NBC.  Les Moonves at CBS has said that he would explore the idea of dropping affiliates and turning CBS into a cable channel instead.  All of these moves are efforts to bring in money, because the amount of money television is making is going down.

In Somerville, we’ve never really had local news.  Cablevision operates News12, which is unique to northern NJ, but that’s as local as we get, and if you don’t have Cablevision, you don’t have News12.  Most of the time local here means NYC local stations.  But if cable providers don’t have to carry local networks, would it keep News12 around or keep sending NYC news to Somerville?  And if they didn’t, how would a station start meeting that need for us?  We’re stuck with Cablevision’s service since there are no competitors here.

What about areas of the country that aren’t packed like sardines onto land like we are hear in the NY Metro area?  For them, local news may be based out of the next big city, or if they’re in that middle point, they may get networks from the nearest 2 major cities.  While I went to college in Ewing, NJ  I got both NYC and Philadelphia local stations.  It was wonderful.  But if cable providers don’t have to carry local television stations, will those areas keep getting local stations?  Or will cable providers instead seeek to reduce their costs by dropping the networks altogether?  It may not now, but I double television profits are going to drastically improve any time soon.  We may see brief spikes, but I’m convinced the trend is heading clearly down.  So once things get desperate, you can kiss your local stations goodbye.  They’d be the first things to go since they appeal to the smallest group of people.

So this ruling could fundamentally change the face of television.  I’m frankly worried, because this court seems far to friendly to large business considerations, and not friendly at all towards smaller interests, especially in the wake of last week’s campaign finance decision.  Let’s hope the Supreme Court gets this one right and makes sure our local stations are safe.

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