Retrans disputes are MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction

Jim BartholdComcast Chairman-CEO Brian Roberts, speaking at an analysts' briefing recently, made a remarkable statement (for a cable operator). He said, "The consumer wants to just push a button and make it happen. I think we're in that business. Make it easy and be the best at this."

The statement is extraordinary on so many levels it would be impossible to explore them all in this space, so I'll just stick to two. First, the Comcast bossman should see how his latest digital HD boxes handle closed captioning. It's not exactly pushing a button. It's not even pushing two or three buttons; it's more like rocket science.

But the more important point of what Roberts said is what he implied. The consumer doesn't really care about the machinations of getting cable TV or high-speed data or telephone; the consumer wants a picture, an Internet connection and a dial tone. When those things are absent the consumer, faced with service prices that approach the cost of a late model car, wants to know why.

It's the reason the ongoing flare-ups over retransmission will only lead to more trouble for cable operators and TV stations--but mostly for cable operators, who are already behind the 8 ball when it comes to public sentiment and who don't have a TV station propaganda machine.

The consumer doesn't want to know why; the consumer wants to know how (push a button) and then be left alone.

Think again about what Roberts said and what Roberts implied. The consumer doesn't want to know why; the consumer wants to know how (push a button) and then be left alone.

But don't take my word for it--in fact never take my word for it--listen Gary Burns, presentation editor of Buffalo Business First who commented on the recently settled Time Warner Cable-Sinclair Broadcast Group spat.

"It would be refreshing if either party told us honestly that good old-fashioned greed is at the heart of the issue," Burns wrote. "Instead, we get public-relations pabulum like this from TWC: 'We think it's unfair that broadcasters keep putting television viewers in the middle of these public contract disputes. We're tired of it, and we know you are too. But if we pay up, that means it costs everyone more, including you, our customers.'

"How stupid do TWC--and Sinclair--think the viewers are?" Burns continued. "Pretty stupid, I guess. Eventually, a 'compromise' will be reached. (It was over the weekend). Everyone will pay more for what they watch. And in a few years, the same story will repeat itself."

Doesn't exactly sound like everyone in the industry is following the leader's advice to "make it easy and be the best at it." It does, however, sound like the W.O.P.R. computer in the geek classic, War Games that asked innocuously, "Shall we play a game?" The game, of course, was Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD.--Jim