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Taking sides in cable TV rift

The 330,000 Time Warner Cable customers couldn't have picked a better Sunday to be without the Bills. If we had to kiss one goodbye, that grape stomp by the Arizona Cardinals was clearly the one to miss. Spending the Sabbath watching every painful detail of a 41-17 waxing (complete with quarterback concussion) was probably a bit more penance than anyone counted on.

There's another reason that I'm almost -- ALMOST -- glad I had to listen to it on the radio: the Bills game told me all I wanted to know about which side of the LIN TV-Time Warner Cable dispute was treating the local viewer with more contempt.

For the longest time, I had enormous difficulty taking sides. I wanted a plague on both their houses if they were going to take CBS and Channels 4 and 23 programming off the air.

A Bills game is another matter entirely. It's the local religion, after all -- and even the late Tim Russert, no doubt, secretly knew it whenever he said "if it's Sunday, it's 'Meet the Press.' " (If you live in his hometown, the credo is "if it's Sunday, it's The Bills game." Unless, of course, there's a bye week or a night game.)

I couldn't figure out which side deserved the special 160-proof loathing that I keep bottled in bond down in the emotional cellar.

The Bills game made it clear: LIN TV.

Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't exactly ask big-hearted Time Warner for a heart-lung machine if I needed one -- or even for a nickel someone found on the floor of Time Warner corporate headquarters -- but despite their conglomerate status and hard-nosed reputation, they're not the ones changing the industrial model for TV in the 21st century. In a world where owning a local broadcast franchise isn't a license to print money anymore (as it clearly once was), LIN, like some others, wanted national recompense from Time Warner for showing all the stations it owns (which, in Buffalo, includes Channels 4 and 23.)

Time Warner's position seems to be to avoid that as long as possible, arguing that Channels 4 and 23 (and others around the country) are free broadcasting, if you just unhook your TV and slap on some rabbit ears.

It's tough to take a side there, though I must confess my initial reaction was to feel something less than love for a local owner that decided its business wasn't as obscenely profitable as it once was so why not squeeze someone else? When Channel 4 actually started running ads encouraging its viewers to get off cable and subscribe to a dish, I wondered if LIN management had money in the satellite network business (I'm assured they don't but the question remains a good one.)

The Bills game was a perfect opportunity for a corporation -- LIN -- to make a quantum leap in public relations and allow Time Warner in the name of community relations, to broadcast all NFL Sunday games in its markets. Making special dispensation for a Bills game (and other teams around the country) would have been a major PR coup in the continuing moral stalemate of the whole unseemly wrangle.

Not allowing Time Warner to carry it though, or even making a public feint in that direction (even if it involved special dispensation), was, it seems to me, an indication that the company least interested in pleasing its viewers is LIN, and I frankly don't care how many dinners and parades and schools its personalities appear in to solidify local ties (an ancient broadcasting tradition, after all.)

Frankly, the original reason I subscribed to cable decades ago wasn't only the clearer picture and greater choice but the Robin Hood nature of cable TV at the beginning. Cable TV commonly broadcast on their access channels network shows (usually low-rated but good ones) that were pre-empted for greed by local stations. Controversial local cable buccaneer Peter Gilbert even defied NFL regulations and carried Bills games when they didn't sell out and league rules prohibited it.

Laws eventually -- and sadly -- closed that cable loophole. You can't see pre-empted shows on cable access anymore. But cable TV began by doing what the Internet did later -- robbing the corporate rich to serve the mass consumer.

My question to both sides of the dispute now is this: given the fact that the ordinary American taxpayer is about to spend $700 billion to bail out Wall Street's incompetent greedheads, is this the most opportune moment to be clubbing home viewers over the head in a prolonged dispute over money?

And, when the next rate hike is contemplated in the eagles' nests of Time Warner, it seems to me you can multiply that question by five.


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