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Chris Westerkamp: I Just Wanted To Watch Fargo

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

 

As I write this, the Supreme Court is considering arguments about a company that is aiming to disrupt the delivery of broadcast television networks to consumers in a handful of states. The company, Aereo plan is to take the free over the air signals from local stations and deliver them to viewers on their computers at a greatly reduced cost to what consumer are paying for cable. In addition they allow their clients to record and view shows at their convenience, much as they would with a DVR. The problem is that Aero claims that they do not have to pay for retransmission fees to broadcasters because the signals are already free to consumers and they claim not to be a programming or cable company, rather a technology company with a superior antenna system.
 
This of course is a similar argument that cable companies used for years before congress passed a law that required them to negotiate and pay local stations for carrying their programming.
 
As a veteran TV broadcast executive, my first instinct is that Aereo is just looking to exploit a loophole in copyright laws, to take advantage of broadcasters the way cable companies used to do, but because of my recent experience as a consumer I’m a little conflicted.
 
A couple of weeks ago I saw some promos for the new series “Fargo” on the FX channel. I loved the original movie by the Coen brothers and more so having lived in Minneapolis. The reviews were positive and the cast of Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman made me want to see the program all the more.
 
Because the FX channel was not on my current Dish Network lineup (In this context I consider cable and satellite providers to be the same) I called to see what it would take to add it. I have a very basic programming package plus two premium channels and I’m not a sports fan. So I pay considerably less than the average cable/satellite customer. I found out that to add FX I’d have to buy a package to nearly quadruple my basic monthly bill from $20 to $79.
 
To begin with, I don’t need or want or watch 75% of the channels I already have on my basic Dish package. I don’t want shopping channels, religious, or sports channels or with all due respect Oprah’s channel. The big con with satellite and cable companies is they pretend that they are designing programming packages for the benefit of the customer, when the opposite is true. If you like food shows, there’s one in the basic package but the others come only with the next package of 200 more channels for a lot more money. They are not packaged to satisfy the consumers’ preferences, they are designed to move you up to the more expensive package.
 
The cable and satellite companies have long resisted offering an a la carte menu of programs, claiming that it required expensive technology that the customer would not pay for. The simple fact is if they can deliver a movie on pay per view, they can deliver an a la carte menu to consumers. It’s just a matter of computer code.
 
Aside from their notoriously bad customer service, Cable’s biggest competitive threat is the Internet. Consumers are abandoning cable service as more discover how to access their favorite programs online, on Netflix, Hulu, XBOX or Apple TV. Bloomberg reported recently that Time Warner Cable lost more than 800,000 customers in 2013.
 
Over the last twelve years this same shift has played out in the music business with the advent of iTunes. Music a la carte allowed consumers to download individual songs from ITunes vs. having to buy an entire CD’s just to get the few songs they really wanted. Record companies were no longer in control. iTunes and the iPod revived and sinking music business with more musicians and earning more revenue through a customer focused and democratic business model.
 
Once you are able to select just the programs you are interested in, it becomes pretty clear that Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Verizon and their satellite brethren have become expert at running a programming three card monte.
 
The cable business is anything but democratic or I wouldn’t be faced with paying $79 vs. $20 a month just to add one channel to my line up to watch “Fargo” on FX. It’s not technology causing this problem its cable company monkey business.
 
Comcast, which consumers rank at the bottom of the customer service heap in America is trying to merge with Time Warner Cable, which ranks 2nd worst. The FCC and justice department are evaluating the merits and possible pitfalls of such a marriage. While they don’t compete with one another in any market the combined companies would have more leverage to negotiate with program suppliers and broadcasters for retransmission fees. They would have a larger voice in refusing to make changes to meet customer needs such as offering a la carte programming.
 
Now with all this as a background, consider the proposed changes to regulating the Internet from FCC Commissioner and former cable industry executive Tom Wheeler. He thinks that it’s okay for broadband providers, which are almost exclusively cable and Telcom companies, to be able to offer different tiers of access to consumers according to Internet speed. The fastest service would be most expensive and of course the fastest speed is critical for watching video from cable’s nemesis, web based program providers like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.
 
If Tom Wheeler were a character in Fargo, he’d be the guy feeding the American consumers into a wood chipper.
 
So cable companies would be able to frustrate consumers with Internet offerings just like they do with convoluted programming packages. No one has really expressed what possible advantage consumers would get from slower Internet service, especially when video is exploding on all online content providers. This is a plan completely contrived to suppress competition and stuff the coffers of broadband providers. There is absolutely nothing in these discussions about service for consumers.
 
Net Neutrality is not dead yet. The real decisions are in the future. There are hearings scheduled. The FCC has set a preliminary vote for May 15th. Franken is leading the charge in congress to make broadband providers agnostic regarding what is being provided over the web.
 
(One negative sign is that Netflix made an agreement to insure its’ access to Internet speed with Comcast in January.)
 
Twenty years ago the anti trust alarms would be going off with such an obvious evidence of conflict of interest, especially in and industry where there is so little competition. The fact of life in Washington D.C. today is that massive campaign contributions have dulled the governments’ ability to act when anti-competitive forces join to the detriment of consumers. Cable companies and Telcoms rank near the top when it comes to deploying political contributions and armies of lobbyists.
 
At the risk of being completely naïve, isn’t the FCC supposed to represent American consumers first?
 
For any consumers hoping for some positive disruption in an industry they hold in low regard it’s a pivotal time. Given the culture in Washington D.C., it’s hard to be optimistic that the winds will blow in the consumers’ direction. I’ll probably have to wait to see the new “Fargo” until some time next year, probably on Netflix.

Chris is a 35-year career in media and strategic management, operating, TV stations and sales divisions for ABC, CBS, Belo and McGraw-Hill. He is a Principal in four Internet start-ups in San Francisco, LA and Denver including Third Age Media and Active Youth Network. Resides in Cranston, Rhode Island.

 

Related Slideshow: Rhode Island’s Changing Media Landscape

Radio, print, television and digital - the faces in Rhode Islands's media has changed drastically over the past months... Let's take a look at some of the biggest moves:

Prev Next

Bob Kerr

The long time Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr was sent packing by the new ownership group.

The unceremonious dismissal ended the tenure of the Projo's only true news columnist. 

Kerr was talented and often controversial. 

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Howard Sutton

The long-time publisher was Belo's man in Providence. Howard Sutton was the man that implemented the changes that Dallas wanted to try and make the company more efficient and more profitable.

The results were dismal. Maybe no newspaper in the country lost a higher precentage of ad revenue than the Projo over the past decade.

He was the face of the paper in the community. 

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Andrew Gobiel

Andrew Gobeil has been named campaign manager for Republican candidate for Attorney General Dawson Hodgson.
 
Gobeil began his media career covering politics as a teenager for a Cape Cod radio station. He has served as one of the youngest NPR affiliate news directors in the country, Washington editor and national correspondent for a television station group, and managing editor and host of a statewide public affairs program.  
 
Gobeil was the morning co-anchor at Providence’s ABC-TV affiliate and co-host of a morning news program on WPRO radio.  He is currently working on a non-fiction book about the journalism business. 
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Rick Daniels

Rick Daniels has joined GoLocal24 as Chief Operating Officer.

Daniels is the former President of the Boston Globe. He also served as CEO of Gatehouse Media for New England and led a consortium of investors who attempted to purchase the Boston Globe from the New York Times Company in 2013.

Daniels then went on to play a key role at Empirical Media Advisors based in New York, focused mainly on Tribune Publishing, where Emprical’s co-founder and CEO, Jack Griffin, recently took the role of CEO.

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Fred Campagna

Fred Campagna has joined FOX25 in Boston.

Before Campagna began working at FOX25, he served as the Chief On-Air Meteorologist at ABC6 for fourteen years.

After leaving ABC6 in July 2012, Campagna launched his own digital weather platform, Right Weather.


 

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Karen Meyers

WLNE-TV has fired anchor Karen Meyers. She had been with the station since 2011.

Meyers had anchored the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news with John DeLuca. Sources say station management opted not to renew her contract and decided to go in another direction.

Before Meyers joined ABC6, she was a reporter/anchor with New England Cable News and was a reporter in Washington, DC.

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Felice Freyer

According to RIPR reporter Ian Donnis, Providence Journal's Health Reporter is leaving.  Felice Freyer has been the sole reporter covering Rhode Island's largest businss sector.

Freyer leaves for the Boston Globe.

Her departure follows Phil Marcelo who recently left the Projo for AP in Boston.

Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly had RIPR reporter Scott MacKay as breaking the story.

Prev Next

Flo Jonic

Veteran radio reporter Flo Jonic recently was fired by RINPR after she filed complaints against the station  for gender-based pay discrimination.

Jonic is a 30 year veteran of New England news radio.

In her charge filed in February, Jonic wrote, "I believe that I have been discriminated against based on my sex by my employer," and referred to the difference in her pay and that of RIPR reporter Ian Donnis.

"Currently, [reporter] Ian Donnis earns at least $75,000 a year, while I make $51,000 per year. We perform the same duties, and I have 32 more years experience than he does," wrote Jonic in her complaint.

Prev Next

Phil Marcelo

After a seven year stint reporting for the Providence Journal's state house bureau, Phil Marcelo left the paper to take a reporting gig with the Boston office of the Associated Press.

Hailing from Long Island, New York, Marcelo came to ProJo in 2006, and covered everything from regional news, to Providence City Hall and the Statehouse. Marcelo's departure was first reported by WRNI's Ian Donnis.

Prev Next

Julie Tremmel

Formerly a nightly news reporter for WJAR, Tremmel was fired from the "Team You Trust" after two clips, one of her performing on-air handstands, and the other offering tips on what to do during a bear attack, went viral.

The video became an internet sensation, but long-time Channel 10 newsman Jim Taricani called Tremmel’s antics “a smudge on our station's reputation.”

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Jim Taricani

A long-time staple of Channel 10’s news team, Taricani announced plans to retire after over three decades with the station. 

Taricani has won 5 regional Emmy awards, an Edward R. Murrow award for investigative journalism and a Prestigious Yankee Quill Award from the New England Newspaper Association.

He was convicted to six months in prison in 2004 for refusing to reveal a source, and is the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Rhode Island Hall of Fame.

Prev Next

John DePetro

WPRO talk show host has come under fire for comments he made on air regarding women. Leading union organizations have called for DePetro to be fired. 

Most recently, he has been on announced suspension.

DePetro apologized for his comments.

Prev Next

Helen Glover

Former star of the reality show Survivor, turned talk radio show host is out. Helen Glover departs and is replaced by radio Veteran Ron St. Pierre, who only months earlier was let go by 630 WPRO. St. Pierre is a radio Hall-of-Famer and former top sports anchor on WPRI-12.
Prev Next

Mike Stanton

Mike Stanton, the remaining reporter from the Providence Journal's once storied investigative team, is leaving Fountain Street for a teaching job at the University of Connecticut.
 
Stanton, who was part of the team that won the Providence Journal's last Pulitzer and is the author of the "Prince of Providence," the Buddy Cianci expose, departs leaving the Projo without an investigative reporter. 
Prev Next

Dean Starkman

GoLocal named Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Dean Starkman as a contributor and editor-at-large.
 
"Dean Starkman has a tremendous track record in financial, media, and investigative reporting. His work at the Wall Street Journal as a reporter and as an editor and writer at Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), coupled with ground-breaking investigations of public corruption for The Providence Journal, is unsurpassed in the region," said Josh Fenton, Co-Founder and CEO at GoLocal24, the parent company to GoLocalWorcester.com.
Prev Next

Karen Bordeleau

Karen Bordeleau takes over for Tom Heslin as Executive Editor for the Providence Journal.
 
Before joining the newspaper in 1996, she worked at the Kent County Times and the Woonsocket Call. 
 
She is a graduate of Northeastern University and a Rhode Island native.
Prev Next

Bob Whitcomb

Bob Whitcomb has been the editor of the editorial page of the Providence Journal since 1992 and Vice President since 1997. 
 
His book, "Cape Wind" unveiled the business and political story behind Jim Gordon's effort to build a wind farm off of Cape Cod.
 
Prior to being a powerful voice at the Providence Journal, Whitcomb served as Financial Editor at International Herald Tribune.
 
He is slated to leave later this year according to RI NPR.
Prev Next

Tom Heslin

Managing Editor of the Providence Journal, Tom Heslin, is retiring. 
 
Heslin who has been a journalistic leader of the Journal since the 1990's, led the paper's team the one their last Pulitzer Prize in the early 1990's and had to implement a series of staff cuts during the past decade.
 
Widely respected by journalists, Heslin has recently suffered from health issues.
Prev Next

Tara Granahan

The former co-host to the morning drive show is now Buddy Cianci's sidekick and co-host on the 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm drive time show on WPRO AM.
 
Granahan has had a host of assignments at WPRO and is the only woman on air at WPROAM. 
Prev Next

Connie Grosch

She was the star photographer for the Providence Journal for better than a decade.
 
Her State House/Political photos made her one of the most influential members of the Providence Journal staff. 
 
In late 2012, the Providence Journal let her go as part of the latest cost cutting ordered by the home office in Dallas.
 
In January, she was named press secretary to U.S. Congressman David Cicilline (D-1). She just announced she was leaving the Congressman's staff to return to photography.
Prev Next

Gene Valicenti

The co-host of Channel 10's 6:00 pm news is now doing double as the host for WPRO's 6:00 am to 10:00 am morning show.
 
Previously, Valicenti lost his 11:00 pm slot on WJAR.
Prev Next

Jennifer Jordan

One of the top Providence Journal reporters is leaving not only Fountain Street, but also journalism. 
 
She was one of the guild members with the least longevity - more than 10 years.
 
She leaves for Boston-based Opportunity Nation - a not-for-profit.
Prev Next

Ron St. Pierre

The new guy at WHJJ - he takes over the morning show from the departed Helen Glover.
 
For decades, Ron St. Pierre has been a key player in the media industry in both local television and radio.
 
St. Pierre handled sports at WPRI TV, hosted morning drive at WPRO AM, and most recently, was Buddy Cianci's co-host in the afternoon.
 
(Photo: Alan Levine, Flickr)
 
 

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