Cable's arrogance has a trickle-down effect on customer relations

Jim Barthold

During a recent Q&A with CTAM President-CEO Char Beales, the question of the cable industry's perceived arrogance came up--OK, I brought it up. She bristled briefly, almost imperceptibly, before launching a defense of the industry.

"I think it's more that they're proud that against all odds we've made this a successful industry and changed the world for consumers," she said.

Cable never got a dime in federal subsidies, unlike the telcos, Beales said. It never got any programming breaks, unlike the satellite companies. It had to build its plant from scratch and work out its own way of doing business, unlike the broadcasters who were handed tons of now uber-valuable spectrum.

"I think the cable executives really banded together and proved that we could build an industry on our own," she said. "Does that make them arrogant or does that make them feel like they achieved something pretty amazing and they're pretty proud?"

She could have added even more to the list of accomplishments: cable recognized the value of multiple channels of programming that included exclusive pay content and uncut movies; cable recognized the value of broadband and the Internet when the telcos we saying the ‘World Wide What?'; cable, especially ESPN, recognized the value of sports to viewers and built quite probably a sports and entertainment monster.

No doubt about it, the cable industry has lots about which to be proud. The problem is, the way cable executives show that pride often lacks humility and steps into arrogance.

Which brings up Meredith Atwell Baker, late--or soon to be late--of the FCC and soon to be lobbyist with Comcast. Baker, it should be noted, won't be able to lobby the FCC until the Obama presidency ends (and being a Republican, she's counting on that to be 2012) and she can never lobby the Commission about Comcast and NBCU, the merger she voted to approve only months ago.

These restrictions, she told the Philadelphia Inquirer, led her to question why Comcast would hire her in the first place, since she will be "completely useless" in dealing with the FCC.

Others have questioned her job change for other reasons. The ongoing coziness between federal agencies and the people they watch was lamented by a media that itself seems more intent on hobnobbing with politicos than covering them and thus loses some of its right to opine. The conspiratorial types saw it as a payoff for a positive vote for the merger--only it's likely that Baker was a long-time merger proponent and such a payoff would have been overkill. And nearly everyone outside the Comcast tower in Philadelphia agreed it just didn't look right.

So why did Comcast hire her? Probably because it could. Perception be damned. Conspirators be aroused. Coziness be debated. Comcast wanted to hire an FCC commissioner, so Comcast hired an FCC commissioner.

The act does lack humility. It also flaunts the power of a consumer-facing company whose employees, having seen their bosses act that way with the nation's leaders, feel free to deal with an arguably disagreeable group of customers with arguably unpleasant and sometimes unreasonable demands in a like manner.

Don't like the way we do business? Too bad.

At least that's the message that seems to be coming loud and clear from the biggest player in the cable industry.--Jim

Speaking of arrogance: Today's issue contains an in-depth look at the retransmission consent fee space where, at least according to some industry viewers, the broadcasters are showing their own degree of arrogance when dealing with pay TV providers.