One of the dubious gifts of modernity has been the rise of so-called “blackouts,” or periods when content isn’t available on the pay-TV service you, erm, pay for, due to payment disagreements between the companies that make TV content and the companies that broadcast TV content.
According to the American Television Alliance, there have been 230 blackouts so far this year, a new record over the 213 blackouts that occurred in 2017. The retransmission fees that cable companies collect have exploded in the past 12 years, from $200M in 2006 to $10.1B in 2018. The American Television Alliance is an industry lobby group representing TV providers (cable and satellite companies, as well as telecoms that carry TV). There are, in other words, no neutral parties to this discussion.
Ars Technica spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which sets the re-transmission fees, and it argues that the sudden uptick in content delivery disruption is being caused by companies like ATT and its subsidiary, Dish. The hope (according to NAB) is that customers will complain to Congress and Congress will change the law. In short, your content blackouts may be a deliberate attempt by your providers to anger you into complaining on their behalf without being aware that you’re actually doing it.
A Fundamentally Rotten System
The fact that these sorts of squabbles between corporations can cut off consumer access to content is a sign of how broken some of our legal frameworks are. Lost in the dispute between corporations that want to be paid for producing content and those paid for delivering it to customers is the idea that there’s an actual human at the end of the chain who pays a very high monthly price in order to watch television when and how they wish to do so.
Ars does a good job breaking down how the various pieces of this puzzle fit together technically, and who the players are. The bigger takeaway, to me, is how broken the content distribution system is on principle. The goal — deliver content that the end-user wishes to consume — has supposedly never changed from the invention of paid TV services like cable and satellite until the present day. But in practice, what we have here are systems primarily designed to extract large amounts of revenue from other corporations. Yes, subscriber fees matter, but supposedly the cable companies are less concerned about the cord-cutting trends than satellite providers are, because cable companies typically retain customers for data access even if those customers drop cable television. Satellite carriers, on the other hand, don’t have a broadband business to fall back to in the same way.
Each side in this disagreement blames the other for skyrocketing prices and blackouts that prevent consumers from watching the content they’ve paid to watch. Neither side is the slightest bit interested in ensuring that customers are actually able to watch the content they paid to watch. Some companies, like ATT and Comcast, are able to play both sides of the field. These firms own content creators and pay-TV networks, which means they buy carriage rights from other carriers to put on their own channels and charge for access to the content they themselves produce.
There are no heroes here. It’s two groups of companies only interested in manipulating public opinion to favor their own outcomes and pockets, and they aren’t afraid to yank the service you pay for in an attempt to coerce you into helping them. We’ve moved from debating over whether cable/satellite television delivers an objective value add compared with a streaming service into an era where the question is whether paying for cable/satellite service actually entitles you to watch the content you have paid to watch. According to the corporations involved, it does not. And given that an estimated 40 percent of Americans have access to just one ISP, it doesn’t seem like much of anything will break the cable company’s hold on the market any time soon.
- Time Warner, Netflix fight over high-quality streaming
- ATT tempts fate by toying with potentially anticompetitive use of data caps
- Charter Communications Will Pay $174M for Defrauding Subscribers