Google the phrase “death to Comcast” and you will get about 1,000 hits.
Become a Comcast customer, and you’ll understand why you might be Googling the phrase “death to Comcast.”
But let’s salute Bob Beall, whom I tracked down in a Comcast call center in New Jersey. He was at first incredulous but soon able to confirm: When you call, as I did, to report a broadband outage after 9 p.m. in my home service area in Connecticut, the local Comcast phone tree leads you by many steps to a closed sales office and hangs up on you. Did I mention too that Comcast’s broadband in Connecticut has a habit of failing punctually at 9, just when you might be ready to stream a movie from a competing video provider like Netflix or Amazon? Hmmm . ..
Which brings us to the cable industry’s latest plea for a federal thumb on the scales in the broadcast blackouts that so infuriate viewers and Congress. Viewers seethed over the Fox-Cablevision dispute in 2010 that cost fans in New York several baseball playoff games. In North Carolina, viewers today seethe because they’re stuck watching the NBC affiliate from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., while Time Warner haggles with a local station owner.
Nor were fans seething any less over the loss of non-broadcast channels like Comedy Central and MTV in this week’s now-resolved Viacom-DirecTV standoff. At the deepest level, the question is the same: Do we still need pay-TV bundlers like Comcast and DirecTV to serve as middlemen between viewers and content owners?
In fact, the federal government has already dug itself an untenable hole with its efforts to protect existing video business models from obsolescence. As former Disney exec Preston Padden will put it in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing next week, “America’s television regulatory policies have come to look like that old closet in your basement you keep promising yourself that one day you will finally clean out.”
Even the very words cause narcolepsy: “Must carry.” “Retransmission consent.” “Compulsory license.” Rather than coming up with more rules to deal with blackouts, maybe it’s time to throw a lit match into the closet—precisely what GOP Sen. Jim DeMint, possibly the next Commerce Committee chairman, proposes to do with his bill to deregulate the video marketplace for the broadband age.
The upshot, no question, would be profoundly disconcerting for many whose current TV business models are partly exercises in nostalgia. The broadcast industry, with its massive claim on valuable spectrum, could certainly use reinventing. And it’s hard to see any technical need for packages of cable channels anymore. Is there a non-vegetative viewer left in America who sits in front of the TV and just watches “whatever is on”?
Most TV in the future is destined to be on-demand. Even live news and sports are ripe to be marketed to viewers without a content aggregator or pipe owner getting in the way.
To pay-TV providers like Comcast, this sounds like their traditional vision of hell—to be reduced to a “dumb pipe,” or a mere broadband path for viewers to find their own content.
But the industry’s eschatology may need reevaluation. Cable and satellite are already paying more and more for content that’s less and less exclusive. That can’t go on. Plus the dumb pipe may not be so dumb. Network operators actually are in a plum position today, thanks to rising bandwidth demand and a need for more efficient pricing models than the all-you-can-eat of yore. At least network operators are in a plum position if they don’t weigh themselves down, as Comcast has, with crippling conflicts of interest.
“Network neutrality” is passé, or should be. That ever-evolving faux principle has lately become a rhetorical battleground between Comcast and Netflix. Yet even as they snipe at each other, the two camps increasingly collaborate behind the scenes to find the most bandwidth-efficient way to satisfy user demand. Especially as metered pricing becomes unavoidable for end users, look for big content providers like Netflix and Google finally to acknowledge and embrace the desirability of paying directly to have their bits delivered to users (yes, this is the part that makes the net neut weenies whimper incoherently about “censorship”).
To make it work, though, will require not just a smart “dumb” pipe, but a pipe management with an unconflicted eye on the ball.
Comcast today is too much of a straddler. It’s not just a broadband supplier, and not just a payer of content fees for its TV service, but also a big recipient of content fees because of its 2011 purchase of NBCUniversal. What was once seen as a bold, if defensive, move to buttress distribution with content now seems a monument to faulty vision in the unbundled world that’s coming.
At the very least, it breeds suspicion among subscribers like yours truly when the broadband cuts out in primetime. At worst, Comcast will be too paralyzed by its conflicting interests to seize the opportunities of a world where bandwidth is the limiting factor. So death to Comcast (as presently structured) may not be such a bad idea even for Comcast.