Battle Lines

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This line caught our attention last week: “As we’ve said many times, as a company that will be in both the cable and broadcasting businesses, looking at the issue from both sides, we hope we can play a constructive role in working toward a resolution of these issues.”

That was some hopeful thinking from Comcast in a statement responding to a two-front war on retransmission consent. The retrans issues heated up last week when a big chunk of the cable industry called on Washington to get involved in marketplace negotiations that they concluded are suffi ciently unbalanced in favor of broadcasters.

The complaints are not new, but calling for the FCC to get more involved in talks, and for Congress to start reevaluating that marketplace, puts the cable industry at risk of inviting a government guest that might overstay its welcome.

Notably not on board with the effort were Comcast and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Their absence was hardly a surprise. Comcast is not looking to make waves in Washington as it tries to get its $30 billion joint venture with NBCU through the oversight process. And if that is successful, Comcast has even less reason to join, since the petition to the FCC would amount to a hefty back-door condition on the deal.

The NCTA, meanwhile, has its own reasons for not asking the government’s help. NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow has consistently avoided seeking regulatory or congressional fixes to cable’s problems, though the NCTA wouldn’t mind a finding that must-carry violates cable’s First and Fourth Amendment rights.

If Comcast and NBCU do get together, Comcast will have a seat at both sides of this table. That will give it important insight—and probably make it a target from both sides. The dilemma of being both a Hatfield and a McCoy when bullets start flying is clear.

Last week, more than half of the 10 largest multichannel providers asked the FCC to step in and mandate arbitration to prevent broadcasters from pulling their signals during retrans impasses. They are, however, only doing so when the deals expire, which they have every contractual right to do.

The operators would also like an untying of these negotiations from other programming, including cable channels and online content. That, of course, is how some of those channels got carried in the first place, piggybacking on must-have network station deals.

That move would, in effect, be a back-door condition on the merged Comcast/NBCU, imposed on the nation’s top cable operator by other operators (with help from DirecTV and DISH). While Time Warner was downplaying that untying provision, it could be the first clear sign that, in the new world, the balance of power and interest in the cable sphere is shifting.

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