If you couldn’t see the Packers v. Cowboys showdown last night, blame your cable company.

What should we make of the National Football League’s refusal to let cable companies show pro gridiron matches unless they, in turn, let subscribers watch the games in their standard "bundle" of cable channels instead of only on premium "tiers" that cost extra?

The Dallas Morning News — that leader in deep, probing analysis of complex issues — threw up its editorial hands yesterday and opined that "both sides need to stop treating customers as pawns in their games and just make a deal."  Despite its exhortation to "both sides", the News put most blame on the NFL:  "If this were truly about the fans, the NFL would negotiate.  Instead, the league is just patiently applying pressure to the cable providers through a pervasive PR campaign and lobbying efforts in statehouses and in Washington."

As Hemingway wrote, isn’t it pretty to think so.

[By the way, didn’t the cable companies just score a major victory by, um, persuading three of five Federal Communications Commission members to vote against expanding the agency’s legal ability to regulate the industry?]

Blawgletter sees the problem as a battle of a little, but legal, monopolist (the NFL) against gargantuan, and likely illegal, ones (the cable giants).  The NFL manages its content — primarily the games but also lots of other intellectual property that interests fans — while the Comcasts, Time Warners, Charters, and the like control the physical pipes through which NFL content may wend its way into living rooms, sports bars, and other video outlets.  The right to use public facilities (like streets, easements, poles, and airwaves), unlike the right to create proprietary content, implies an obligation to serve the public interest.  And the difference between choosing who gets to use your copyrights and trademarks, on the one hand, and deciding who can reach consumers, on the other, strikes us as huge.

Indeed, cable companies can, and do, vend all sorts of junk content by "bundling" the sorry channels that purvey it together some good ones (often broadcast network channels) while proclaiming how "exciting" customers should find their range of selections.  Comcastic!

Plus satellite broadcasters Dish and DirecTV provide the NFL Network "at no extra cost", according to the website, which the NFL no doubt sponsors.  How could they do that if the cable behemoths in fact had to kow-tow to the (tiny-by-comparison) NFL?  More important, how could they do that if satellite broadcasters represented effective competition with cable providers?

Truth to tell, Comcast and Time Warner don’t face effective competition, particularly in the "clusters" where they own upwards of 80 percent of cable subscribers.  That situation prevails in more metropolitan areas than we’d like to count — including Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia for Comcast alone.

So, unlike the News, our local paper, Blawgletter doesn’t urge the NFL to "just make a deal".  We instead exhort federal authorities to rein in the cable monopolies.  (We also congratulate the more petite monopoly of the NFL for standing up against bullies.)  Only then will Comcast, Time Warner, and others include in the "bundles" that they brag so much about the channels that subscribers actually want.  Or, better yet, they will let consumers choose their channels!

For more background on cable monopolies, see here, here, and here.

Barry Barnett

Feedicon_2 Our feed once again reminds everybody that we do have a major antitrust lawsuit against Comcast pending.