Regulation gave us media monopolies. Can consumer power shake them?
Americans hate their cable companies--for bumbling installers, on-again-off-again transmissions, peculiar channel selections, and indifferent customer service. The only thing cable subscribers hate more than the cable company is not being able to get what it delivers: multichannel selection and good reception.
So when Time Warner yanked ABC from the homes of more than 3 million subscribers, including a lot of Manhattanite media stars, the cable company was bound to lose the p.r. battle. As Eric Mink of the New York Daily News put it, "On one side, there's Oprah Winfrey, Regis Philbin, Ted Koppel, Dennis Franz, Diane Sawyer, Michael J. Fox, Drew Carey, Jenna Elfman and Peter Jennings. On the other side, there's...the cable company! The technical term for this situation is 'no-brainer.'"
Beyond the Everyman consensus that the cable company is bad, there was the equally common idea of why that's so: because the cable company is big. Time Warner is already a huge jumble of media properties, from DC Comics to CNN, and it's trying to merge with AOL. Over and over again, populist cynics warned that we might as well get used to its viewers-be-damned attitude.
"It's the future," wrote Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Sun-Times. "A future that doesn't have to be, perhaps, but a future toward which we seem inexorably headed. This nasty shoving match between media megapowers...is a warning to everyone about all that's at stake as conglomerates merge and flex their newly fortified muscle."
The ABC affiliate in Philadelphia put out a press release with much the same message. Viewers in West and North Philly, it said, were victims of Time Warner's "illegal and irresponsible midnight ambush of Channel 6 and its viewers." The big, bad conglomerate had bought out minority-owned Wade Communications, which formerly held the monopoly franchise for those areas, and now Time Warner was beating up its customers. "Time Warner's action is a frightening foreshadowing of how it will treat the public after its merger with AOL," said Dave Davis, the station's general manager.
The problem with this diagnosis is that it ignores history. As it happens, I lived in West Philadelphia in the early 1980s, and I could only dream of such problems. In those days, the issue wasn't whether local cable subscribers would do without Ted Koppel for a few nights. It was whether Philadelphians would ever get cable at all...