Part II of Jeff Gelles' Consumer Watch column highlighting CV's report, "Cable's Level Playing Field. Not Level. No Field." Thanks for the Shout Out, Jeff!
The effects of cable's dominance are made clear in a recent report by Jonathan Rintels of the Center for Creative Voices in Media. As Rintels documents, Comcast and its counterparts act as gatekeepers who choose whether a new channel gets carried on cable's primary "tier," the one that includes such mainstays as ESPN, CNN and MTV. Increasingly, Comcast says yes only to channels in which it has a financial stake. That's probably why the America Channel and Current don't make the cut. Meanwhile, cable companies aggressively seek to control "must-have" local content - the strategy that gives Comcast a lock on Philadelphia sports fans. Comcast SportsNet carries most Phillies, Sixers and Flyers games. Relying on a loophole in federal law, Comcast refuses to sell the channel to its satellite competitors.
What to do? Rintels' top priority is a rule called "network neutrality" that would bar any Internet provider from blocking or slowing down data streams from any source to give a competitive advantage to content in which it has a financial stake. Neutrality is crucial to keep the Internet as free and open as we trust it is today. It's also crucial if the cable-television business model - selling consumers a large bundle of content, most of it unwanted, at a high price - is ever to give way to an Internet model of unlimited choices for consumers. Cable companies like Comcast don't like this concept, for obvious reasons: If you can buy an individual TV show or movie from, say, "movies.com" and watch it on your TV same as you would a movie or TV show on traditional cable, the whole cable-TV business model is at risk.In Rintels' wish list, and mine, Congress and the FCC could simply require broadband providers to rent an open pipeline. Short of that, though, he has ideas about how smaller changes can nudge the marketplace in the right direction:
Net-neutrality rules that guarantee us access to content and applications - not just movies, but inexpensive phone service and other new Internet technologies - while barring broadband providers from discriminating in favor of affiliated sites.
Rules that protect and encourage new broadband alternatives, including municipal wireless ventures such as Philadelphia's and technologies such as transmitting broadband Internet via electrical lines.
A genuine "level playing field" for traditional cable TV, so that companies such as Comcast can't use control over delivery systems to favor channels they own.
An end to the loophole that allows Comcast to keep SportsNet to itself, and program-access rules that require system operators to sell content they own to competitors.
Greater choice in how consumers may subscribe to cable, with more packages, tiers, and an a-la-carte option.
Rintels supports the push by phone companies to streamline the process of getting permission to build their systems. His main worry: that some in Congress are trying to water down rules that protect consumers in their effort to speed competition. As the last nine years have proved, you can't wave a wand and create vibrant markets out of whole cloth. Competition is the best answer. But the devil is always in the details.