Retransmission becomes a political football; football's just political

Jim BartholdThe similarity between National Football League labor and the retransmission consent brouhaha is uncanny. Both groups are in the throes of record-breaking moneymaking seasons and both want more from their players.

In the case of the NFL, an operation with an embarrassing largesse, the billionaire owners--aided and abetted by broadcasters--demand more billions while the players demand a bigger slice of a monster pie. Programmers across both broadcast and cable are printing money to pay for the rights to show these games so that advertisers can print money to pay for the ads that go with them.

Of course the fan, that guy in the stands or in the rec room watching the game on TV, can't print money. But who cares if everybody else is reaping the benefits?

Which moves things to the other game in town--if the town is Washington and retransmission consent is a game. The FCC has finally looked down upon the tug-of-war that is the fight between broadcasters who want more and service providers who don't want to give more and decided that, well, it really doesn't want to get involved other than to say these kinds of spats aren't good for anybody.

The FCC last week decided to ask these remarkably unhappy negotiators to put on a happy face and play nice. Based on the most recent discussions--sans Comcast and Sinclair Broadcast Group, of course--that's like asking Muammar Gaddafi (or however you spell it these days) to smile and relinquish power. As of this writing, the latest dispute between Dish Network and LIN Media has darkened channels in 17 markets.

As with the NFL, of course, both sides in the service provider-broadcaster battles are making big money these days. Despite losing subscribers faster than I'm losing hair, cable operators are still raking in big bucks and DirecTV, FiOS and U-Verse are even adding bodies. Broadcasters, having seen their advertising sales return, are again raking in the moolah and demanding more for the privilege of presenting American Idol on your cable/satellite/telco system.

And, as with the NFL, they'll get what they want when service providers grumble and open their checkbooks. Then those service providers will reconfigure their billing systems and insert some more rate hikes for people who, for some reason, don't understand that they can watch a lot of television with a good old fashioned antenna. And the consumers, as stated before, unable to print money, will end up paying that few extra bucks a month.

Despite their apparently unending desire to roll over, consumers are not powerless. Over-the-top content has wedged itself into the landscape, not through quality but through the quantity of things available via non-traditional methods including, according to some surveys, piracy. Consumers could--and with everything else going on in the economy might--decide if they have to pay higher service bills they can't afford to attend a football game or buy the DirecTV NFL package or even a six-pack of Budweiser, despite how cute those commercials during the games are. Or they could decide to buy season tickets to the local NFL franchise and forego HBO or Showtime or, heck--digital cable.

People who are paying more at the pump and at the game and at the TV aren't an endless pile of money. A high school football game isn't as exciting as a pro contest--but it's cheap and it's still football. An over-the-top video grabbed by computer or gaming device and streamed to the TV isn't exactly a home theater experience. But then again, it's not a budget breaker either.--Jim