Wednesday, December 30, 2009

There was a time when TV was free, and now look what happened!

By John Kubicek

What I wanted to write about today has been a great challenge. This all started with a dilemma that mostly involves people here in Iowa, but ultimately, every one of you. I must admit, there was a huge motivation I had in dealing with this problem that you wouldn't really care about if you live on one of the coasts. But, this dilemma may actually reach you at some time in the future, no matter where you live. All I ask is that you bear with me, as I give you the background to this story and then develop it into what we all may have to look forward to.

I get so sick and tired of people that manage to blame everything on greedy businesses. You know, like the greedy insurance companies that have driven up our health insurance costs, despite the fact that their average bottom-line profit margins are only around 4%, and way less than many other industries that people seem to never complain about. Of course, we all heard how horrible those greedy Wall Street companies are that gave their top management huge bonuses, and yet ignore or dismiss the huge sums of money paid to top professional athletes or the loony actors out in Hollyweird. It's just an absurd double-standard, right?

As you can probably tell, I'm a Conservative, and I believe that capitalism and the free market should allow businesses to make all the money that people are willing to pay for goods and services when based on performance or quality. The only time I do not approve of an exorbitant income is when the company or person is a scammer... say, like Bernie Madoff.

No, wait, there is another time when I am somewhat disgruntled about excess profit. That is when it comes down to any business (or government entity) that takes advantage of the consumer because of an important "need" that people depend on, especially when the company has a monopoly.

For people in Iowa, the problem is that right now, a major cable company may lose the retransmission feeds from an owner of CBS and FOX affiliated stations, meaning that many of us may not be able to watch the Orange Bowl where the Iowa Hawkeyes go up against Georgia Tech on January 5, 2010. If that is not bad enough, some of us wouldn't be able to watch the Superbowl, "24", CSI or NCIS... I can picture demonstrations for those reasons, here in the heartland, that will make the current protests in Iran look like the Times Square New Years celebrations tomorrow night.

So, here's the background. To my knowledge at this time, my cable provider will no longer be able to rebroadcast two local TV stations, once being a CBS affiliate, the other on the FOX network, as of January 1, 2010. The cable company is Mediacom. The operator of the two stations in Cedar Rapids, and many more in Iowa, is Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. The current situation that I am aware of as I write, is that Sinclair wants to charge a higher fee to Mediacom for retransmission rights than Mediacom feels it should have to pay. The current contract runs out on December 31, 2009.

So what's the big deal? Being that the very successful Iowa Hawkeyes football team is playing in the Orange Bowl this year, the very last BCS bowl game before the National Championship game between the Tide (Alabama) and the Horns (Texas), well, you can only imagine how important this is to many people in Iowa. Even Sally Mason, President of the University of Iowa, weighed in with a letter to both Sinclair Broadcast Group and Mediacom which you can see here.

Being that I've been a big Hawkeyes fan for decades, I had plenty to gripe about, hearing a few weeks ago that Mediacom would no longer be able to carry the CBS and FOX channels here in Cedar Rapids. I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what I would do. My ultimate desire was to be able to watch the game from the comfort of my home. If that wasn't possible, I then had to consider other options, such as changing cable providers or even getting a satellite dish. And the other choices that were available would be to go somewhere else that had a different provider, such as a sports bar with a satellite dish. Or maybe, I could go watch the game with a neighbor, a friend, or a relative with a service other than Mediacom! I could even go buy a digital TV and an antenna, and watch the game over the air. (Not really an option, considering I couldn't afford it!)

That's right, I had a choice. A tough choice to make, but at least I was free to do so.

I probably wouldn't have thought of that part of the story had it not been for a great radio host that I listen to often, Andy Petersen of WMT radio (600 AM) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A week ago, I was really thinking about that old thing about the greedy corporation trying to hurt us Iowa Hawkeye fans. I was angry, to be sure, and honest. Despite the anger, I felt there was very little I could do to change what really big corporations could do at there whim.

And then, I heard Andy Petersen doing an interview on his show last Thursday, Dec. 17. That interview was with Sinclair Broadcast Group's Barry Fabor, Legal Counsel and Vice President. He was explaining the Sinclair side of the story. Since I was driving home from work when I heard the interview, I couldn't take notes. But what I remember happening during that interview, Barry seemed to have ducked a few of Andy's questions. Barry Fabor, Sinclair's Legal Counsel/Vice President/spokesman dodged the financial details of the negotiations between them and Mediacom because of confidentiality. That's understandable, but it left me not knowing who was right or wrong.

The day I decided to take a stand was on Monday, the 28th. That was when Andy Petersen interviewed Ms. Phyllis Peters of Mediacom, their spokesperson. While Ms. Peters was also obligated not to disclose financial details, she pointed out one major point that I don't remember Mr. Fabor mentioning: Who was going to pay the price for this stalemate! That's right, it's us, the consumer, those of us paying high enough cable bills.

It was following that conversation Andy Petersen had with Ms. Peters while I was driving home, I felt I had to do something. I got home shortly after what I had heard, and wrote to Andy. I needed to know the names of the people representing the conflicting parties. I received a quick response. I had more questions, and wrote a much longer email to Andy, and again, received much more information than I expected in a short amount of time. (And here the guy is preparing to travel down to Miami, and he probably isn't driving it), to see and report on the Hawkeyes playing in the Orange Bowl. He went over and above the call of duty to help me out in writing this piece.

In our email exchanges, we discussed many things that pertain to the Mediacom/Sinclair dispute. I so wish that I could quote to you everything Andy put his heart into, and maybe someday I will with his permission. But the most outstanding part of what he wrote to me this morning that sticks in my mind is about our freedom of choice. There are those times that we must make decisions that may not be to our ultimate liking, but they can be made. That is what we call a free market. That is why this country became great. Not all the choices that we have to make really suits us, but we had that opportunity at one time.

Do you remember the time when you got about three or four channels on your TV set? And that was if you were lucky enough to own a home and put a huge antennae on your roof. Live in a college dorm room or an apartment with the rabbit ear antennae, and you may have been able to see Bonanza on NBC with a whole lot of snow. It isn't that way anymore, as we all know.

But now, we have the new complications. The media is run by large corporations. They have investors to think about. Media corporations, such as WGN, that should have been "too big to fail," have gone bankrupt. As I learned in doing some research, Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. was (and maybe still is) facing bankruptcy. That's right; if a company can't make a profit, they will be gone. Oh, yeah, I guess that is not always true now, is it...

Well, of course, being that consumers of the public airways were involved, along comes Mediacom with an online letter to Sinclair, with the cc: to all the top dogs in the political world here in Iowa along with the FCC. While Mediacom has so many things right with that letter, there are also the slippery slopes when involving our federal government, governing which companies survive, and which don't. And don't forget that we're talking about the media industry, the last realm we would want the government to have control of. Because then, we are talking about a state-controlled media.

Rather than that nightmare ever happening, I have a better idea. How about having the companies that advertise on the local stations that may no longer be found on Mediacom, follow the free market model and tell the networks/stations that without Mediacom's 400,000 or so viewers, they either want a big discount or a refund on their current contracts, or they will go elsewhere to advertise? I'm thinking that would wake Sinclair up out of their slumber should they find the loss of revenue from advertising will amount to be much more than a lower income from a blue-sky revenue stream with selling retransmission rights to Mediacom. (In the latest email I received from Andy Petersen, he explained how there is probably a very low cost to Sinclair for retransmission to the cable companies.)

For many of us here in the heartland, for those of us that really want to have the Sinclair-owned stations be allowed to stay on Mediacom - for many reasons, especially for that Orange Bowl - there has to be a line we must draw. And, there are many questions that we must ask ourselves. And many of the questions must be asked by even those of you on the East or the Left Coast: Do you want the government - specifically, the FCC - to be involved in this dispute? Are some companies getting so greedy that they hold the consumers hostage? Or how about this: Wasn't it a lot easier when our local TV media was locally owned and operated? Though the picture is much clearer, especially with HD, do you now long for the time when television was free even if a little snowy?

So, back to what I originally said when opening this essay. I don't blame either of the companies involved for wanting to make a profit. But I do hold them both accountable for putting BIGGER profits (or lower losses) ahead of the very people they provide their services to. I'm really hoping that those involved in negotiations keep us, specifically Hawkeye fans (and '24' fans) in mind. We're the ones that ultimately make them or break them (with the advertising sponsors in mind). And not to mention that many of us are broke because of job loss, etc., you would think that would make a difference. There needs to be a win-win-win solution, and I'll guarantee that the so-called benevolent Big Brother will end up having little to do with it.

Mediacom and Sinclair, you need to work this out.

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There are so many people that I want to thank for helping me write this article. It did not take much for me to inspire many people to freely give me their opinions about who was right and who was wrong in the Mediacom-Sinclair dispute. Of course, many had their biases. I had my biases, too. But God bless Andy Petersen (APonWMT at twitter) of WMT Radio. I requested his assistance, and received it in a wonderful way, which is when one gives more than is asked.

I truly believe that it was Andy that helped me to understand the many sides to this story. Because of that perspective, it made me realize how much this dispute fits in with the way our society, and ultimately our government, is trying to handle many of the great issues of the day, from health care to making sure we aren't eventually fried by man-caused global warming. Couldn't the cause of climate change be other than man, like maybe sun spot activity? I think it is time to quit saying there is a consensus, and the debate is over. Just sayin'.

We need NOT to fear considering the possibility of other options and possibilities!

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EDITOR'S NOTE: For the followers of my "weekly" feature, Last Week on TheREALjohnny2k, I hope to get that posted tomorrow. It has been a busy week, as you can see!

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Updated 12/31/09 at 4:10 a.m. ... I was unable to read this post today with out my brain hurting. I made a few minor grammatical changes. I think my brain feels better now...

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Updated 01/05/10 3:55 p.m. ... So that you know, it was announced last Thursday, New Years Eve, that Sinclair extended the contract until January 8, 2010, so that the Mediacom customers could watch the Orange Bowl on Fox TV (KFXA) tonight! That was great news, of course!

Well, today, from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Central), on WMT Radio 600, the blow torch out of Cedar Rapids, they had what is called the Liberty Link Hawkeye Huddle. While this show is normally following the Iowa football games, they had the show pre-game this week. Hosting the show were Andy Petersen, Bob Bruce, and Erik Thigpen. This is a radio show that listeners can call into, which I did. That was fun! I said how Andy had so much to do with the arrangement for the game to be on TV, and wanted to thank him. Of course, the other two guys jumped on that, and laughed about how Andy had so much power over the media on the radio 600 blowtorch. Hehehe, that tickled me. So, I had my 60 seconds of fame, but the real big deal was having the chance to thank Andy for what he did (for me, in helping me with info for this blog, though I didn't mention that part of it). Great stuff! Thanks again, Andy!

And P.S., Bob and Erik are still kidding Andy about getting the Mediacom-Sinclair deal getting resolved, 20 minutes after I called!

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