Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Contracts? We Don’t Honor No Stinkin Contracts!

Back in the Stone Age, when I was a kid, I was told quite explicitly that lying was bad.  This was further reinforced by my Sunday School teacher and my Girl Scout leader.  It was made clear that if you did something wrong, you should still tell the truth, even if that truth had consequences.  In the end, they said, you will be a better person for it.

Imagine my surprise as an adult when I first heard the phrase “Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”  I’ve never liked that philosophy; I’ve just always felt it was better to be up front, to be honest about your intentions.

A wee bit later in life I learned: there is truth, there are lies and then there are legal binding contracts and frequently these things never do cross paths and more often than not, the legal binding contract trumps everything else.

The only way I know how to get out of a contract is to prove you were mentally incapable or incompetent when you signed it.

Which brings me to my subject.

Charter Communications signed a legal binding contract with the Town of Northbridge, Massachusetts in the spring of 2013.  The contract detailed how Charter would conduct its business in the Town, to include the provision of Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access television channels, support for those channels and their placement on the cable system.

The contract clearly (and I mean that in the most Linguaphile interpretation of the word “clearly”), states the following:

“The Licensee shall continue to make available to the Town and/or the Access Designee three (3) full-time Downstream Channels for PEG Access purposes on channels 11, 12, and 13.”

Yet, some eighteen months later, Charter has slammed those Northbridge PEG channels to 191, 192 and 194.  To add further insult, the Charter government relations person said “I personally messed up in terms of the license we had with Northbridge.”  And went on to let the good Selectmen of Northbridge know that Charter would not be moving the PEG channels back to their contractually binding position any time soon, meaning never.

We can speculate, fairy accurately, that when Charter signed that contract in 2013 it was already in the midst of making its digital transition plan, and it knew that they would slam the PEG channels to the higher placement, but they signed the contract anyway.  I am not sure if this was just lying or that asking for forgiveness later deal.  But I am pretty dog-gone positive the contract trumps whatever devious intentions or model business plan Charter may have had.

One could venture that should the contract come under some kind of judicial review, Charter’s only hope is to plead mental defect or insanity. I, myself, would be perfectly willing to testify to the findings of such a plea.

From a purely analytical point of view, what could explain Charter’s decision in Missouri a few years ago to pull free cable drops to police departments and fire stations?  Sure, the statewide franchising law didn’t require these drops the way the local franchises had done previously, but why treat first responders with such disdain, knowing the company would make itself look churlish and it would garner bad publicity?

Mental defect?  Insanity perhaps?

Why on earth would a company slam PEG channels in Missouri and Wisconsin to the 900’s?  Why would they slam community channels full of church services and school board meetings and the Rotary Club to what I am told is the “Porn Neighborhood”?  (I wouldn’t know, I don’t “do” porn).

Mental defect?  Insanity perhaps?

And then, why would a company march into a perfectly good school district in Montana and tell them they had to rent cable boxes at $6.99 a month for every television set in the district if they wanted to get cable?  A rate, mind you, that would cost the school district $60k to $80k per year.  This behavior is further proof of something going on when Charter knows all it had to do was provide DTA’s to the school district at very little cost and that would have solved the problem. 

Mental defect?  Insanity?  Out of control hormones?  Bad Sushi?

The phenomenon that is Charter Communications never does cease to amaze me, and not long ago I could shake my head and laugh it off, but with Charter poised to be the second largest cable operator in the country, it’s no longer a laughing matter.

Little old Northbridge, Massachusetts is not the only community this is happening in, add to them Worcester, Uxbridge and Douglas, to name a few. 

Meanwhile, it would be very hard to claim a mental hiccup whilst the ink was drying on the legal binding contract given in Northbridge the PEG channel positions are now occupied by QVC, Telemundo and the NFL Network.  Those lower channel numbers, which the Charter representative allowed really are not very important, seem to be occupied by at least two pretty important revenue generating programmers. 

And that, at the end of the day, is the point.  For the bottom line, cable operators will do what they have to do, contracts be damned.  It does remain disturbing that after they’ve done it, they’re not even willing to ask for forgiveness.

To see the Northbridge Selectmen's hearing on the issue go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZdhea-vigI&feature=youtu.be

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Lipstick on a Pig

I was raised by a mother who grew up in the 1920’s and 1930’s on a cotton farm in Delano, California.  She was a transplanted Texan who used many country colloquialisms and passed the same onto me.  One of my favorites was “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”  Her favored vernacular gave me a fond appreciation for language and how language can be used to make something sound like something it’s not.

Last week, I received a talking points sheet on “Local Choice.”  Everybody likes “choice” right?  I mean we’re red-blooded Americans after all.  The document deals with the broadcast retransmission battle going on in Congress in the course of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act or STELA.  The premise of Local Choice is to put power into the hands of the cable subscriber by “allowing” them to choose whether or not to pay for broadcast stations.   And it poses a direct payment system by which broadcasters charge the subscriber a set rate, cable collects the fee and gives it back to the broadcasters. 

The fact sheet talks about how there will be no more hidden retransmission costs on their subscribers bills and offers them more opportunity to control the cost of their cable bill.  It also guarantees that religious stations, PBS stations and PEG access station programming will be carried like they are today.

Pig with lipstick still equals pig, as my mama would say.  And frankly, it’s one helluva dangerous pig.

First, this plan has cable operators stumbling straight into the a-la-carte battle, one they will surely lose if they adopt this model.  We cable subscribers are paying $7.50 or more per month to get ESPN.  And frankly, I don’t like having to pay for MSNBC, the Golf Channel, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney, MTV, Style, ABC Family, E! Entertainment, and the Learning Channel (which hasn’t taught anybody anything in quite some time).  So just eliminating those from my lineup would save me about $11.50 a month or $138.00 per year.  Actually it’s probably more, my calculations are based on a Time Warner programming cost filing that’s over a year old.

Second, it’s cable’s attempt to squeeze out the broadcasters, something us PEG folks know quite a bit about.  We are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to dealing with cable operators.  We know from our experience they never, ever do anything that doesn’t benefit them and they are certainly willing to tell localism to go take a hike, evidenced by what they have done to PEG access television in twenty-two states. 

Which cracks me up all the more reading the fact sheet, they say this plan will “reinvigorate key national broadcasting values like localism and serving the public interest.”  The only localism cable operators have ever had were what we provided them on the PEG channels and even then, they do everything they can to wipe us out.  And as for public interest?  Please pig, just because you thought you’d look good with Cover Girl #195, doesn’t take away the fact that you are a pig.

Third, and most important to PEG, having a Basic tier that is reduced to PEG, PBS and Home Shopping, ghettoizes us yet again.  It’s bad enough Charter slams our channels to 980 and BrightHouse slams us into the 600’s, taking away our proximity to the local broadcast channels puts us smack into the desert. 

I do appreciate that PEG receives a nod in the document but giving us a nod and coming out with a robust endorsement are two different things.  I have spent four years working on the Community Access Preservation Act which will preserve and protect PEG access television, I could use a bit more love, like right now

My only hope is that somehow this plan gets the light of day it deserves, in the mainstream media.  It is my belief that if I surveyed 100,000 people tomorrow they would tell me, to a person, that they hate cable.  And they would further tell me how much they love their local broadcasters, many even going so far as to name anchors or show segments.  So there’s a part of me that hopes this plan gets some head wind so we can have a robust national discussion on cable a-la-carte.

That would be a pig I wouldn’t mind kissin.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Roll Me Over...

The country is absolutely abuzz with the news of the Comcast-Time Warner merger, the Charter acquisitions and the AT&T merger with DirectTV.  My doctor even asked me about it today. He spent a few moments in the midst of treating my Rosacea, opining about where it all is going.  “Terrestrial” he said, “Terrestrial.”  I admit I was duly impressed with his grasp of telecom, given he’s only a Dermatologist after all.

He even brought up the “fast lane” stuff.  I guess the guy reads. 

David Cohen, Comcast’s Real Repairman, according to the New York Times, was cited in various publications, that Comcast had plans to roll out usage caps.  And they’ve been rolling them out in test markets already, just to see if they actually work. The idea is that in about five years, Comcast will have a usage-based billing model rolled out across it footprint, according to Cohen.

So what we’re looking at is a net-neutrality issue, where content providers will have to pay-to-play and an end user issue, where customers will have to pay-to-get.  Gotta hand it to ‘em, if there’s even one red dime left on the floor the Comcast vacuum will figure out a way to suck it up, or in this instance, make you suck it up.

Now, I don’t mind a man, or even a group of men, being ambitious and making all the dough they can, but it leaves me scratching my head about the endless possibilities for the rest of us. 

The scenario that immediately comes to most peoples’ minds is all those poor gamers and video consumers out there, what the hell are they supposed to do?  I mean, you’re gonna force Pete the Plumber to pay extra just to play Scarlet Blade?  It is Mankind’s last hope for survival that lies in the women they’ve genetically engineered.  Or charge Gus the graduate student even more to watch a House of Cards marathon online? 

At the end of the day, I am not in a tizzy about Pete or Gus, but I am in a tizzy about other applications, like distance learning, telemedicine, event and conference communications, management training, and business start-up and the entrepreneurs, patients, customers and consumers who are the end users of these applications.  And, frankly, who knows what new applications will exist in the next five years and how rich the content will become?

My friend, Dirk Koning, talked about bandwidth as water, and that was ten years ago.  He said that bandwidth would become a necessity in our lives.  But as a matter of public policy, our nation has left our growing need for bandwidth at the mercy of the marketplace and the mercy of mega corporations, corporations that are becoming Godzilla-sized Mega.  And our nation has altogether abandoned the notion of robust rural bandwidth because the Godzillas have no interest in build out and we have no will for creating infrastructure.

The data caps story didn’t take long to kick up a general public stink, according to a report in the Philadelphia Magazine, Cohen walked it back a few days later:

“To be clear, we have no plans to announce a new data usage policy. In 2012, we suspended our 250 GB data cap in order to conduct a few pilot programs that were more customer friendly than a static cap. Since then, we’ve had no data caps for any of our customers anywhere in the country. We have been trialing a few flexible data consumption plans, including a plan that enables customers who wanted to use more data be given the option to pay more to do so, and a plan for those who use less data the option to save some money. We decided to implement these trials to learn what our customers’ reaction is to what we think are reasonable data consumption plans. We certainly have no interest in adopting any plans that our customers find unreasonable or disruptive to their Internet experience.

Whew!  Now I feel relieved!  Because as we all know this is pretty heavily regulated stuff and Comcast can’t jaunt about town doing anything that suits their fancy!  And as we all further know, the Godzillas of this world have only your internet experience in mind and they’d never want to be unreasonable or disruptive.

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