It’s bare-knuckles business negotiation time, so let’s beat up the customers, right? - The Buffalo News

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It’s bare-knuckles business negotiation time, so let’s beat up the customers, right?

What kind of business thinks nothing of abusing its own customers?

Besides television, cable and otherwise, of course.

Well, there’s the NFL, which long ago decided that if we weren’t excited enough to fill the stadiums that tax dollars helped provide for them, we jolly well weren’t going to be able to watch the game on the tube either. How the blackout rule managed to sneak past TV’s business honchos all those years ago is quite beyond me. Talk about being asleep at the switch.

The NBA and Major League Baseball – with their much more crowded schedules – never followed suit, thank heaven, thereby making for a common-sense environment for the most ardent followers of professional basketball and baseball.

The latest exhibit of consumers being absurdly mistreated by a business that ought to have no business whatsoever doing it is the utterly loathsome battle between cable giant Time Warner Cable and the CBS family of networks (which includes Showtime and the Movie Channel.)

Time Warner customers – especially those of us in Western New York who are fans of “Dexter” and “Ray Donovan” – don’t have to be told what’s happening.

For everyone else, it went like this: Reduced to its simplest facts, CBS wanted more money from Time Warner for transmission of its networks through Time Warner’s cables. A simple check of CBS’ ratings would make this as annoying as can be to consumers (who’d likely be asked to pay for those fee hikes eventually) but, in its way, logical. CBS’ parent network does awfully well in the vile numbers game that is the only thing the business of television really has ever cared about.

If you’re making a popular product, the logic of American business says that you ought to be properly reimbursed for doing so. If people love watching your NFL games and “NCIS” and “Under the Dome,” you ought to be able to participate in any ancillary profits for those who are benefiting from your success.

Time Warner – which, it seems to me, has lost this public relations round decisively – says the CBS fee increase is “unreasonable.” That may well be so but doesn’t excuse its tactics in the weeks since the giants first locked in combat.

The end result has been worst for such cities as New York, Los Angeles and Dallas. It’s not that bad locally – not yet anyway. We’ve lost only the Showtime network to Time Warner’s yanking it off its schedule. On Showtime, it’s the all-important period where its premiere show “Dexter” is winding down to its final episodes ever on Sept. 22. TWC customers haven’t been able to see it locally for two weeks. That’s because Time Warner took it off their air as a “negotiating” technique. It seems, as I said last week, a Walter White business maneuver if ever there was one.

In New York, L.A. and Dallas, the parent CBS network itself has been pulled off the air by Time Warner so watchers of that consummate summertime reality TV horror show “Big Brother” haven’t been able to see what has turned out to be one of the show’s ugliest but most instructional TV seasons ever.

It’s too bad. CBS’ “Big Brother” has become a kind of magnificent petri dish of human conflicts waged entirely for show but really for staggering financial profit (not for the participants, of course, except for the winner of $1 million at the end). There is no better show on television for showing anyone of any age (it is very popular among younger viewers – quite deservedly I think) the enormous creativity of profoundly bad decision-making that can go into resolution of those conflicts.

I’ve thought since their very beginning that “Survivor” and, especially, “Big Brother” are profound and harrowing allegories of corporate life in America. In “Big Brother,” a number of contestants are locked up for several weeks in a house that is incommunicado from the outside world and where they can only deal with each other.

Which they proceed to do atrociously.

Their every move is on camera – evidence of their Orwellian “Big Brother” running the TV show. They compete in inane semi-amusing contests for individual rewards whose major function is to instill resentment in other “houseguests” (as they are all drolly referred to by host Julie Chen, who is, in life, married to CBS uber-honcho Les Moonves).

Over the years, scholars and professional watchers of the show who have become the show’s contestants have come to refer to the basic strategy of advancing and winning as their “social game.” Which, without the euphemism, is lying, cheating, backstabbing, intimidating, wheedling, persuading, bargaining and conspiring with other “houseguests” to eliminate one of their number every week and let themselves stay on the show one more week.

It’s competitive American life at its most claustrophobic and vicious and paradoxically open to scrutiny. And all of it is performed by people who are either good-looking (especially the women) or typed by larger-than-life personalities whose “signifiers” (as the academics say) could all be spotted six blocks away.

This year, the goofy but weirdly clever pizza delivery boy looks like a typecast pizza delivery boy; the frequently weepy gay contestant looks like Central Casting circa 1984 for a gay contestant; and the rural fellow with the bushy beard and Southern accent looks like he could be a neighbor of the members of ZZ Top.

All have invented overblown personalities for themselves and engaged in pretend social interactions that are at least five times larger than those one encounters in the real world.

And the whole point every week is conspiring to do damage to someone else, get them off the show and, thereby, advance yourself. Of particular vileness this year was the openly racist treatment by the “mean girls” among the houseguests of a black contestant. Both she and the other black contestant were voted off the show. The “mean girls” are still there.

It occurred to me as I was lucky enough to be able to watch the show on CBS Thursday night via Time Warner – something the cable giant’s customers in New York, L.A. and Dallas couldn’t do – that I could very easily be looking at the kind of people who would negotiate rights fees with networks and then decide that a dandy way to apply pressure would be to yank a popular show off the air and make home viewers suffer for their own negotiating incompetence in the boardroom.

The trouble is, in this dispute, there IS no Big Brother. So no one is there to tell one of the key players to go into the Diary Room and sternly advise a cessation of vile and stupid behavior.

It was, from Day One, a conflict destined to be solved eventually. In the meantime, turning Time Warner customers into collateral damage seems to me ridiculous at the very least.

And a good deal more besides.


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