Botox to Cable's Rescue?

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Anytime a U.S. senator makes a public stink about rising cable television rates, I, for one, sit up and take notice. My brow furrows as I wonder where all the noisy accusations might lead.

That's because I've been around long enough to remember the passage of the 1992 Cable Act.

But an odd thing happened last week. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)—who is also the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee—asked the General Accounting Office to investigate cable rates. He also asked the GAO to assess the reliability of cable industry-supplied financial data collected by the Federal Communications Commission.

That news was barely picked up Pon, though. Where were all of those local-news stories documenting how much cable rates have gone up in a given community over the years, with those alarming graphics comparing cable increases to the rate of inflation?

Nowhere. Instead, Botox—a numbing toxin used to smooth facial wrinkles by paralyzing the muscles—received far more press coverage than did McCain's crusade to investigate rising cable rates.

Botox, after all, finally won Food and Drug Administration approval. Now the nation can erase years of wear from its collective aging face—truly a momentous occasion, one would gather, from looking at all of the ink that news generated.

And oddly enough, Botox could be a good thing for cable right now. Face it: every aging official at the GAO or in McCain's camp is going to be obsessed with finding that fountain of youth, so they won't stay focused on escalating cable rates.

One little pop of the needle will keep them wrinkle-free for three to six months, if it doesn't paralyze their brains in the process. And some might argue that's already happened.

Maybe that's why the National Cable&Telecommunications Association seemed so blase in its comments about McCain's latest announcement last week. The NCTA is acting like this isn't its problem.

The NCTA seems to think that McCain is really just looking at the FCC's methodology, and not at the fact that cable rates are indeed rising beyond the pace of inflation. Maybe they're right.

It also seems to think it very unlikely that the cable industry will get any requests for information from the GOA.

So, as we all get ready to trek off to New Orleans for the National Show—a public forum for cable to show its best face, if you will—should we be worried about McCain's new probe?

My answer is yes. With the massive deployment of new broadband services like cable modems—and new, tiered pricing models for Internet access at faster speeds—this could become a lightning rod for politicians like McCain.

Then there's that lingering problem of the Cablevision Systems Corp.-Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network stalemate over carriage of New York Yankees games. The MSO is pounding its chest, saying it's not going to pass on that extra cost to those customers who don't want baseball.

But did Cablevision, whose Madison Square Garden Network had carried the Yanks last year, cut the price for its subscribers when it lost the games? Absolutely not.

Maybe some enterprising cable health channel should administer Botox injections at its booth in New Orleans. After all, aging cable operators will want to look their best if they're called to testify before a congressional committee about rising rates.

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