News

Disney, Cablevision and Parker Home

3/16/2010 8:01 AM Eastern

I thought that I’d been
on all sides of the retransmission-
consent issue. I can argue
the broadcasters’ needs
and rights. I can argue the distributors’
efforts to keep down
consumer bills. I thought I’d
seen it all, until last Sunday.

I was at Francis E. Parker
Home, a lovely nursing facility
(such as these facilities are)
in Piscataway, N.J., near New
Brunswick and an hour south
of New York. We were visiting
my wife’s mom and sitting with
other residents and their guests
— spouses, sons, daughters,
grandkids, etc.

As far as I could tell, nobody
ever paid any attention as to
where the TV signal in this place
came from. The big-screen TVs
in the central areas and the sets
in residents’ rooms ran like any
other utility. They’re there and
on, 24 hours a day. Operating
without question and with no
questions asked. In this case,
the company providing that
television utility is Cablevision
Systems.

To say that TV is taken
for granted in a nursing
facility is an understatement.
But it is also an
understatement to say that
TV is essential to the mental
and emotional health and
well-being of the residents.
It does much more than pass
the time. It keeps people active,
so long as their minds
can be active — even if their
bodies aren’t. It is the foundation
of conversations among
the wheelchairs. And most of
all, it helps people who can
no longer be part of the outside
world … be part of that
world.

This was a very different
view for me, and I never
would have seen it if it weren’t
for the Cablevision-The Walt
Disney Co. dispute over ABC
that residents, staff and families
were attempting to understand.
Sometimes you don’t
see how important things are
to people … until they aren’t
there anymore. WABC-TV,
New York’s channel 7, wasn’t
on those screens any more,
replaced by a monotonous female
voice extolling the rightness
of the Cablevision cause.
Big Sister.

People were confused, but
they wanted to know. My wife,
Valerie, God bless her, told people
that I could explain everything
it since I worked in the
industry, thank you very much.
And I tried.

And it was surprising how
much the 80- or 90- or 100-
something crowd knew.

They knew that the television
broadcasting that they’d
known their entire adult lives
was in trouble.

They knew that cable was
costing more and more.

And, most importantly,
they knew that somebody
was taking away their Oscars
… and in some cases, it might
be the last one they’d ever get
to see.

They wanted to know who
to blame. I tried to cast it as
a business problem between
two companies stuck in an
economic bind and trying to
sort things out in a very public
way.

The 80-plus-year-old retired
corporate attorney was having none of that. “But who actually
threw the switch?” he demanded.

Ah, Disney.
But why shouldn’t Cablevision
pay them for ABC when
they pay them for other networks?

Ah, because they don’t want
to raise their prices.

Then why don’t they just
make less money?

Ah …
And why are they putting
us through this? They have no
right to do that.

Ah …
We were long gone by Sunday
night when Cablevision
joined the Oscars, 14 minutes
in. By the next day, the dispute
was probably forgotten in most
homes.

But at Parker Home, and
for people who take
television as a necessity,
the shutdown has added one
more continuing uncertainty
during a period of life filled
with uncertainty. Is this going
to happen again and again,
they asked?

So when Time Warner Cable
and Disney face off this summer
— or when any other content
provider and distributor
think about shutt ing down
— perhaps the CEOs should
forgo having their final negotiating
meeting in one of their
offices, and instead sit down in
front of the big TV at one of the
Parker Homes of this world.
They should look at the people
as tightly clustered around
the big TV as their wheelchairs
will allow. And they should
imagine themselves, or a family
member, sitting in one of
those chairs.

And then they should ask
themselves, “Why are they putting
us through this?”

Indeed.

 

Tom Wolzien, a financial analyst and media-industry veteran, is chairman of Wolzien LLC.

March