Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Cable Competition – Politicians Chase the Dot

One of my favorite things to do with my dog used to be playing \”chase the dot.\” We had a laser pointer which would project a little red dot on the floor, which Booker tried to bite. As you moved the dot around, he\’d chase it around the house, almost jumping through cabinets trying to devour his elusive target.

This week, the Wisconsin State Senate will take up a bill that purports to provide competition to government-mandated cable television monopolies in the state. Yet somehow, the debate over the bill has morphed into some ridiculous side issues meant to appeal to the broadest common denominator. These side issues have all the philosophical underpinnings and intellectual weight of my dog chasing his red dot. They make one long for the level-headed debates during the recent budget impasse.

Several senators have suggested that an amendment to the bill should mandate that cable companies and new video providers carry the NFL Network and the Big Ten Network, both of which are caught up in acrimonious contract negotiations with cable companies. (For the most part, these are senators who will give long-winded lectures about the sanctity of labor negotiations.) These networks are carried by most satellite dish providers, but no cable providers in Wisconsin. Thus, if people want to see their beloved Green Bay Packers play the Dallas Cowboys this season, they either need to get a dish, go to a bar, or purchase an expanded package.

In steps your state government, to save you from the injustice of leaving your couch to watch the game. Naturally, mandating these networks be shown on a video provider will raise rates on consumers – that\’s what the whole impasse is about. So when state government mandates higher cable rates on everyone in the state, you can look forward to follow-up legislation to cap video provider rates for the people that can no longer afford video service. In effect, mandating new networks could counteract the whole purpose of the bill – to save consumers money by providing effective competition.

Furthermore, how exactly is it that the NFL Network and Big Ten Network are so important that they merit legislative action? I pay extra to my satellite company to get the NBA Network. I occasionally watch the Golf Channel. That\’s kind of how it works – if something is important enough to a consumer, they usually pay extra for it. But now apparently, whether you have a constitutional right to watch a certain sport depends on the shape of the ball.

And what about other non-sport channels? I enjoy watching \”The Wire\” as much as anyone – and I consider it to be must-see viewing for everyone. Should we mandate HBO, too? There are actually psychiatric procedures administered to child sex offenders that provide them with \”appropriate fantasy material\” (and yes, I understand that \”appropriate porn\” is an oxymoron) in order to steer them away from fantasizing about children. On that basis, it could be rationally argued that mandating the Spice Channel serves more of a real public service than the NFL Network. (I\’m trying, guys.)

In fact, defending Wisconsinites\’ constitutional right to watch the Badgers choke like dogs has become a veritable cottage industry at the Legislature. Bills are being introduced to provide binding arbitration for cable company negotiations with these networks. Essentially, it would be up to one arbiter to mandate higher cable bills in the state. In introducing their \”Fair Access to Networks\” (FAN – get it?) legislation, the bill\’s authors wrote this unintententionally hilarious press release, which contains lines like:

\”There is no reason that all Wisconsin fans should not be able to see the Wisconsin-Ohio State game or the Packers-Cowboys game in November….\”

As it currently stands, cable-subscribing football fans living outside the Green Bay and Milwaukee media markets will not be able to watch the Packers play the Dallas Cowboys on November 29th unless of course they subscribe to AT&;T, DirecTV, Dish Network or a similar provider that has reached agreements with the NFL Network.

Incidentally, plenty of fans did miss the Wisconsin-Ohio State game this weekend, and for some reason, the earth didn\’t open up and swallow us all. In fact, the game was well worth missing, given the final result. I actually couldn\’t stay awake during the game, so I may ask legislators to provide me with caffeine pills to guarantee that I don\’t miss the next one – since seeing the game live is apparently my right as a U.S. Citizen.

And you can see they even concede that there are, in fact, other ways to see the game. That\’s called competition. If you want to see the games, get a dish. There\’s a reason DirecTV pays the going rate for the NFL Network – because it drags people away from cable.

Following the partisan acrimony during the budget, it\’s good to see that there\’s a terrible issue that can embarrass members of both parties equally. It appears, however, that there\’s enough of a bipartisan coalition to thwart these changes. As it turns out, the whole issue was summed up best by Democratic Senator Pat Kreitlow of Eau Claire, who said:

\”Personally, I don\’t think there is necessarily a legislative role… I\’m a supply-and-demand person. If (cable companies) would like a better supply of customers, they need to work on a price.\”

In the mean time, Kreitlow\’s colleagues will continue to chase the red dot wherever it takes them, regardless of principle or philosophy. If a state government thinks it needs to legislate entertainment, then it literally believes it has a role in every aspect of our lives. Not a comforting thought.

4 Comments

  1. First, Badger and Packer games are not remotely like an HBO series. Football season is a finite season that can’t be rented and does not re-run. These games are important to the fan base, which would rather not miss them.

    Sen. Hansen and Rep. Rhoades are not “legislating entertainment.” The problem is NFL Network is asking for a mere 70 cents/month/subscriber, which I believe Wisconsinites will pay. Charter and Time Warner want to offer the Network on a “special tier” – gouging the consumers for even more money, while continuing to broadcast their own affiliated-channels and pocket the change. The bi-partisan team is doing the consumers a favor -offering this FAN bill that will put these disputes to a neutral third-party. Doesn’t it seem logical that an arbiter enter in?

    Finally, our legislature passes laws that impact business decisions regularly. Government has long been involved in cable issues, so this should come as no shock. Arbitration is a fair and reliable way to reach a resolution here. You may prefer your HBO and not share the passion of Badger and Packer fans, but the rest of us would like to see the Badgers in a bowl game and the Packers trounce Dallas.

  2. Bubba,

    Actually, I think your comment is reflective of the lack of seriousness the Legislature is showing on this topic.

    So cable companies want people to pay to watch something that they value? And that somehow is “gouging?” How dare they “pocket the change!” To some, that’s called “profit,” and it’s the reason businesses are businesses.

    Basically, you’ve just bought into the idea that Government should be providing entertainment for its citizens. I don’t know how anything the government has done in the past somehow makes this okay now.

  3. Will the Big Ten Network include coverage of UW Women’s Rowing or Women’s Rugby because I can’t even go to a bar to watch those.

    Who’s looking out for me?

  4. How about the legislature pass a bill that invokes arbitration when my wife insists that we go shopping instead of staying home and watching the Packer game?

    After all, who is she to deny me that right?

    Better yet, maybe a mandate for video providers to provide TiVO or DVR?

    Even better stil – as the deep thinkers in the Senate would like – FREE cable.

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