The views expressed below are my own, and in no way reflect the views of the Federal Communications Commission or any other entity – nor do they reflect my actions or motivations when working in a professional capacity for the FCC.
I want to make it doubly clear that I’m not advocating for or against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, nor am I criticizing any of the parties that commented or filed related to this proceeding.
At the end of October, representatives of The Blaze, a cable channel owned by conservative pundit Glenn Beck spoke with the FCC in an ex parte meeting about the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable (an ex parte meeting where not all relevant parties are present, and it requires the speaking party to file a notice of what was said in the meeting).
You can find TheBlaze’s comments at the meeting here. TheBlaze is a pretty new channel, they mainly function through subscriptions to their online video content. They’ve also been picked up by some TV providers like Dish. However they haven’t been picked up by big cable TV players like Comcast and Time Warner, and they claim this is because the big boys don’t want to play ball and allow them to keep selling subscriptions to TheBlazeTV.com. In their ex parte, TheBlaze writes of their efforts get carried by the large cable TV providers:
However, the largest MVPDs, including the Applicants, have cited the availability of TheBlazeTV.com as an obstacle or adverse factor to gaining MVPD carriage and two of the applicants (Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications) have gone so far as to suggest TheBlaze discontinue TheBlazeTV.com nationwide in order to be considered for carriage.
Basically, they’re saying that Comcast and Time Warner are shutting down TheBlaze’s ability to reach their customers through other avenues (like the internet), using that as a condition of carrying their channel’s content.
TheBlaze continued on to claim that Comcast discriminates in favor of vertically-integrated channels – channels under the NBC umbrella that are tied to Comcast – against independent networks. To solve this, TheBlaze recommends an “arbitration regime” to govern the way TV providers and content creators/channels negotiate programming agreements:
TheBlaze further explained that the Commission’s existing program carriage regime has been unsuccessful in eliminating discrimination from vertically integrated MVPDs. In response to questions asked by Commission staff, TheBlaze offered its suggestions about how the basic framework of an arbitration condition could be structured as a means to address carriage discrimination claims by unaffiliated independent networks. TheBlaze noted that arbitration would compel the Applicants to be transparent and even-handed in making programming decisions; and, with limited discovery, arbitration would showcase the less favorable treatment of independent networks compared to Comcast affiliated networks with respect to the ease with which they are permitted to rebrand, expectations with respect to program ratings, breadth and scope of MFNs and ADMs, and demands that Comcast must “make money” on the distribution of independent content.
So there’s lots of legalese in there, but essentially TheBlaze wants arbitrators – people hired by the government – to proceed over these negotiations and ensure that they’re fair. They want arbitration to make sure that MVPDs (TV providers) like Comcast treat independent networks the same way they treat the programmers that they own.
I’m not going to comment on whether or not arbitration is a good idea, but I do feel it worth noting that TheBlaze is owned by Glenn Beck. That’s the same Glenn Beck of Fox News, the one who thinks pretty much all regulation including environmental, labor, and even telecommunications reform is wrong. Yet here, Beck’s company puts forth what at least on face appears to be a very sensible case for why the government should intervene in the free market.
Generally, negotiations between networks and TV Providers are almost entirely unregulated – a nearly pure free-market. That’s the kind of free market that pundits of Beck’s ilk tend to deify. I don’t want to directly allege hypocrisy here, Beck has repeatedly argued that the Comcast – Time Warner Cable merger is a special case where the government should get involved, possibly because he feels things are just too out of hand.
Instead, I would ask Beck to consider if regulation is appropriate outside of this one narrow case. Beck’s company does not feel it’s right for Comcast to strong-arm them into stopping their internet video subscription service, yet he has been an outspoken critic of net neutrality. If it is wrong for Comcast to do that, wouldn’t it also be problematic if Comcast could just slow down traffic to TheBlaze for all of its subscribers?
We can venture beyond telecom too – so Beck claims the cozy financial relationship between the Obama Administration and proponents of the merger is a problem; how does he feel about the lobbying efforts of the oil, coal, gun, alcohol, tobacco, banking, and defense industries?
Again, without commenting on the specific arguments of TheBlaze, I at least can appreciate their general reasoning: that the government should step in when serious market failures occur. Beck offers a nuanced approach, a stark departure from the “regulation=bad, private enterprise=good” formula that’s served as a blueprint for Beck and other conservative pundits. I only wish I could see that sort of nuance in an area where Beck doesn’t hold financial interest. And I would gladly buy a subscription to TheBlaze just to see how his viewers feel about it.