By Karl Bode
For the last decade or so, U.S. cable TV customers have been plagued by a steady parade of content blackouts as cable providers and broadcasters bicker over new programming contracts. For the end user, so-called “retransmission feuds” usually go something like this: a broadcaster demands a cable company pay significantly more money to carry the same content. The pay TV provider balks, and one side or the other blacks out the aforementioned content. Consumers spend a few months paying for content they can’t access, while the two sides bitch at each other and try to leverage consumer anger against the other guy.
After a while a new confidential deal is struck, customers face a higher bill, and never get any sort of refund for missing content. Rinse, wash, repeat. Over and over again. With regulators largely sitting on their hands as consumers get the short end of the stick.
While some might think the innovative streaming revolution is going to fix stupidity like this, evidence suggests that’s not likely. While a different variety of feud, AT&T and Roku have been in a standoff preventing AT&T’s HBO Max from appearing on Roku devices. And last week, Sinclair-owned CBS stations were pulled from Hulu completely because the two sides couldn’t put on their big boy pants and agree to a new contract without taking it out on paying subscribers:
“Hulu is next in the line of cable providers and streaming services to lose locals due to disputes with broadcasters. Some viewers started receiving scrolling on-screen notices over the weekend, letting them know that their CBS station could be removed from Hulu.”
This being Sinclair’s particular brand of highly partisan, homogenized disinfotainment, many won’t care that they lose access to these networks. Sinclair obviously cares, given that fuboTV, YouTube TV, and SlingTV (Dish Network) removed the company’s costly regional sports channels last year from their own streaming lineups, contributing to a $4.18 billion loss for Sinclair in the third quarter. But this sort of stuff is only going to get more common and probably dumber, as broadcasters relentlessly try to extract more and more money from already frustrated consumers during an historic health and economic crisis.
For years, even Wall Street stock jocks have warned that the broadcast industry’s relentless price hikes simply aren’t sustainable. It’s creating a sort of death loop where broadcasters demand more money, cable companies acquiesce and raise rates, and consumers, realizing they’re better off skipping TV and reading a book or watching TikTok after several rate hikes each year, finally cut the cord. And while competition from streaming has certainly helped the sector in terms of more flexible choices and lower rates, many of the pay TV sectors dumbest and most self-harming tactics are starting to come along for the ride.
That means a steady parade of rate hikes that erode the value proposition of your monthly streaming subscription, and the routine blackouts and disputes that result in you paying more money for content you can’t access. It would be relatively simple for a regulator to bar consumer-harming blackouts during negotiations (or at least ensure consumers are compensated for losing access to content they pay for), but this being a country where consumer protection policy is usually set by industry (which is why there often isn’t any), that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.