Sunday, January 3, 2010

News Corp, Time Warner Play to DC Not The Viewers

Was there ever any doubt that News Corp. and Time Warner would come to an agreement that would allow Time Warner’s cable unit to continue showing News Corp’s cable or broadcast properties on its system? The announcement on Jan. 1 that the two sides had averted a showdown that would have kept the BCS football game on the sidelines for 11 million folks is, well, a yawner.

It’s become almost an annual kabuki dance among cable or satellite operators and content providers to show which side – content or distribution – has the most muscle when it comes to such talks. Guess what fellas? Neither of you really have what it takes any longer to force your will on the other.

The last time we had a showdown anywhere near this size was back in 2000, when Time Warner, in the midst of a similar showdown with ABC, allowed Regis Philbin and his then-hit show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” to go dark for some 3.5 million homes. The cries from Washington were deafening. Hearings were held, fingers slapped.

So when the chorus started again in Washington on Dec. 30 on the current impasse you knew that Fox and Time Warner were destined to do whatever they could to avoid having DC on their backs. First, Sen. John Kerry urged the sides toward arbitration, and then FCC commissioners started encouraging peace. If there is anything that a media company wants less than a shutdown in the ad markets, it’s to have the feds on their backs. So Time Warner and News Corp. wisely extended the Dec. 30 deadline, then scurried to cut a deal that you know is less than the monthly $1 per subscriber fee that News Corp. had all but insisted was their right to get from cable operators.

One thing News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch, who owns TV stations, newspapers and internet sites, understands is that he sure as heck doesn’t want an angry FCC looking over his shoulder. In the past, he’s done back flips to keep them happy, whether it was striking a deal that allowed him to own the New York Post and New York area TV stations, or to get his deal to buy DirecTV passed a few years back. As for Time Warner, do you think they want the feds thinking bad thoughts about them when the FCC is still contemplating rules on such things as “net neutrality” – that is, whether Time Warner’s online offerings are to be regulated? Uh, no.

Sure, it was good theater. News Corp. told America that it might not get the NFL, American Idol or Glee. Time Warner said it was fighting to keep consumer prices from zooming if Fox high jacked higher fees from them. Yeah, yeah. A good show boys. It sure played in Washington.

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