Backtalk: Microwave, Anyone?

1/09/2000 7:00 PM Eastern

Well, we all got through Y2K pretty much unscathed, only tousher in the millenium to a nasty round of cable-bashing.

The hangover -- and it's a nasty one -- began Jan. 1, asnegative headlines and Web sites cropped up bantering that cable operators were dumpingbroadcast stations and their precious football games.

Not surprisingly, to the average "Joe Six-Pack"looking for his New Year's Day football games, cable looks like the devil incarnate. OnYahoo!, for example, a message board entitled "Cox " emerged. There, angry Coxsubscribers vented their spleens.

One Cox subscriber groused about going to RadioShack to buyan antenna, only to run into 35 other Cox subscribers, all looking for the same thing. Butthe antennas were sold out. "COX SUXS! I hope they crash and burn!" was thetenor of many of those message-board postings about what ironically is probably thebest-run and most progressive MSO in the country.

As of this writing last Thursday afternoon, the standoffcontinued between Cox Communications and Fox Television Stations. Fox, you recall, hadpulled out the heavy artillery, lording its retransmission-consent leverage over Cox infour of the MSO's markets.

Fox is asking for "national" -- vis-à-vis,"digital" -- distribution of two of its networks, Fox Sports World and FXM:Movies from Fox, in exchange for Cox carrying Fox Television.

So the unthinkable actually happened: Fox went black inthose Cox markets, meaning that Fox will not allow Cox subscribers in four markets --about 400,000 of them -- to receive the Fox Television Network.

As nasty as this all sounds, there is a silver lining inthis cloud. As of this writing last Thursday, individual Cox operators were very quietlyworking out distant-signal-importation deals with nearby independent Fox TV stations thatwere not owned and operated by the parent company. I have absolutely no idea if any ofthis is legal, but I'm sure a lot of lawyers made some big bucks on this solution.

Most of this quiet planning seems to be occurring aroundTexas and Arkansas, where by the time you read this, if all goes as planned, Coxsubscribers will once again be watching The Simpsons, not knowing that the programming isbeing imported via microwave from a distant market.

And talk about a stealth operation: Neither Cox nor theindependent Fox TV stations involved had bothered to notify Fox corporate that thisarrangement was being discussed.

I love it. Personally, I think the solution is brilliant,and it may become a blueprint for other cable operators that, for whatever reasons, stillfind themselves at loggerheads over retransmission-consent deals.

In Cox's case, it's a particularly interesting solution tothe MSO's unique problem with Fox. Let's talk geography, or a quirk of geography, if youwill. Interestingly, Cox now has 6 million subscribers. But because of the location of itssystems, only 1.2 million of them ever even had the Fox network.

So, if I were Cox, I, too, would be galled at the notion ofhaving to carry two national cable networks -- albeit, even only on a digital basis -- tomeet retransmission-consent agreements in four stinking markets.

Perhaps that's why Cox, unlike other MSOs, has not beenable to come to terms with Fox. Of course, there are probably a host of other reasons. AllI know is that people who had recently talked with Cox president and CEO Jim Robbins saidthe normally unflappable executive was extremely hot under the collar over the Fox issue.

If this microwave idea flies, I, for one, take my hat offto Cox.

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