Cablevision's in the rear-view, Comcast's in the headlights

Jim BartholdToo often cable smells more like the fertilizer than the rose. The brouhaha surrounding Cablevision, WABC and Disney was not one of those times. In this instance cable was right--and by cable that means Cablevision Systems not Disney, which, besides owning ABC owns and controls such popular cable channels as ESPN and ABC Family.

Despite political pontificating about Cablevision's responsibilities to the public, New York consumers were never left up an ABC-less creek with only a dish for a paddle. If they really wanted to watch ABC programming and absolutely couldn't wait until the envelopes were sliced and the winners announced (talking about Oscars here, not whether WABC got its $40 million or not), viewers had several options.

WABC is a broadcast channel that goes out "free" over-the-air to anyone with a digital television or digital-to-analog decoder and antenna. While many viewers have become dependent on cable to receive and retransmit that signal, SmartShopper Faye Prosser on WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C. pointed out that broadcast TV is alive and well when she offered "50 ways to cut utility expenses."

Way number 39: "Buy your own digital analog converter for around $40 and up... to see the basic network stations. The great thing is you don't have a monthly cable bill if you use your own box."

Actually, if you use your own broadcast box you don't have cable so there'd be no need to pay a bill; but you get the idea.

Then there's the Internet. Even residents of a backwater like New York City should be aware of the Internet. Perhaps it's unrelated, but Yahoo! Tech reported that a market study by Leichtman Research showed that "24 percent of all U.S. homes have some way of getting video from the Web to their television." Even more to the point, Moviefone used the Web to explain how to watch live TV "without cable television" via a number of online sites.

There's even a third possibility: wait until the morning and read about the winners in the newspaper. Sorry, silly thought. Disregard.

The point is that WABC was around before Cablevision and people found a way to watch it.

The Cablevision mess is in the rear-view now, having been resolved at the last minute; Comcast is just coming into the headlights. Comcast, once tried to buy Disney; now it wants to be a better Disney by buying NBC Universal and therefore owning the largest cable system and one of the big 3 networks. This is the same Comcast that has withheld its programming from competitors for years.

Sports fans in the Philadelphia area know that if they want to watch the Phillies, Flyers, 76ers (OK, so no one does) or even Big 5 basketball they need Comcast or FiOS. The MSO has adamantly refused to offer the service to DirecTV and Dish Network and will probably appeal an FCC decision telling it to do so.

To further taint its aroma, the cable provider is also in a hissing contest with DirecTV over Versus, the Comcast-owned sports channel that the MSO hopes someday will rival Disney's ESPN. According to a message DirecTV is showing in place of the channel, Comcast thinks that day has come and is asking too much money for carriage rights. Versus is dark on DirecTV.

It's inevitable that some sharp mind in Washington will put the Disney, WABC and ESPN story together with Comcast, NBC and Versus story and realize there might be a problem: these guys might someday try to turn off WNBC!

And, more than the Oscars, Howard Stern, John Kerry and all the other news bites of this past week, that's promises to be the really big story. -Jim