(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Starting with Bill Clinton passing his sweeping telecommunications act in 1996 the world of media and entertainment in America has pretty much gone to hell. I’m not talking about quality, who knows if the summer blockbusters in 1998 were any better than the summer blockbusters of 2011, however the depth, range and variety of access that most Americans can get in regards to television and radio has been limited. One company can now own the largest newspaper in a city, a television station and a radio station. Daytime TV hosts gush over films and actors that are controlled by the same parent company. In most cases states are controlled by a monopoly of one or two cable companies forcing people into having horrible service (since analog television is almost non-existent) or paying huge fees for satellite television. It’s this last scenario that might be the straw that breaks the media consumer’s back.
Right now Direct TV and Newscorp, the parent company for all Fox associated channels are in a huge grudge match about the cost of programming that screams out for the federal government to get involved for the sake of consumer protection. Satellite providers like Dish Network and Direct TV pay a fee to stations like USA, TNT and AMC or their parent companies like Viacom, Time Warner or Newscorp for the right to carry their programs. Usually these negotiations are fairly civil because the satellite providers have no real leverage. If Disney Inc. wants to charge Dish Network a billion dollars for the right to carry ESPN Dish Network is going to pay because no one is going to subscribe to a satellite or cable provider that doesn’t have a channel as basic as ESPN. The problem occurs when either the stations get too greedy or the providers get too stingy and the only people that suffer are the consumers who don’t have much recourse. Case in point: the contract between Newscorp and Direct TV expired Sept. 30 and all Fox related programming on FX and various local Fox sports channels have been running on borrowed time ever since. Direct TV claims that Newscorp is demanding a 40 percent increase in fees for the right to carry their signature channel FX. Direct TV doesn’t want to pay but at the same time they’re in bad shape if they lose out on hit shows like American Horror Story, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League and Sons of Anarchy which are some of the highest rated shows on television over the last few years. When Direct TV didn’t bow to behind the scenes pressure from Newscorp, Rupert Murdoch and his cronies went public, running ads during popular FX shows last week featuring stars and writers begging the public to pressure Direct TV into “Keeping my Networks” otherwise all FX programming would be cancelled as of Nov. 1. Of course the FX ads make no mention of charging Direct TV 40 percent more for the same programs. Of course Direct TV isn’t entirely a victim either. The satellite provider will likely pass on whatever fee increases they finally accept to the consumer and worse, there is a painful cancellation fee if you break your two-year Direct TV contract early so consumers are forced to hold onto the provider even if key bits of programming are lost.
This is a huge consumer protection issue, and no matter what the final solution is between these corporations it is high time that Congress take a more active role in regulating and determining the practices of television providers. Direct TV has written a complaint letter to the FCC to get involved but who knows how long that will take and it’s not like the FCC has been on the side of regular people if the rulings on Net Neutrality and other issues are any indicator.
In an America where only about four companies control all of televised media and news, and where you are forced to buy cable or satellite or not have any television at all, someone needs to be speak out for the regular guy when these media mega-corps get into billion dollar staring contests. Otherwise we all just become pawns in whatever contract dispute happens to bubble up every season. You may not have Direct TV but one of these days a channel dispute might hit you, and you just better hope it’s not during the playoffs.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)