Dangerous Politics: Sports Tiers


I can relate to the cable industry's growing anger over the 20% rate increase that ESPN just slapped upon them.

There's been a lot of bellicose chest thumping, with operators moaning, "There oughta be a law." But operators must tread very carefully about approaching regulators to overhaul cable laws.

Nothing good can happen on that front. Remember the Alamo. And remember 1992, with the passage of a draconian cable act that just about crippled the industry and stymied its growth for years. That's what government intervention can lead to: shackles and handcuffs.

But two weeks ago, Cablevision Systems Corp. chairman Chuck Dolan and Cox Communications Inc. president and CEO Jim Robbins made an appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chairs that committee and is looking at why cable rate increases far outstrip inflation.

While Robbins did not call for government regulation, Dolan did. What Robbins and Dolan did have in common was their rising furor over escalating rate hikes for cable sports programming, most notably, ESPN.

Both Robbins and Dolan would like to offer ESPN on a sports tier so that only subscribers who want ESPN would have to ante up the money. Maybe that's only 20% of the cable television universe, maybe it's more.

But what if that came to pass? Would Cox and Cablevision actually lower the price on expanded basic service if they were allowed to move ESPN and regional sports networks into such a tier?

Actually, I think they would have to, or wind up looking like insincere hucksters who care only about their own bottom lines and not the purse strings of their customers.

Looking even further ahead, what happens the next go round, when an MSO who has already launched a sports tier tries to raise subscriber fees for expanded basic?

Any betting person would wager it would be a sure thing that McCain and his cronies would be all over their backs in a New York minute.

One could argue, no guts, no glory, and let the chips fall where they may with concerns about future cable regulation. Heck, the Republicans are in office, and they don't really care about this nickel and dime stuff. Let the marketplace rule, and all that jazz.

But cable operators are just being outright rash if they think they can even attempt to cozy up to a government that thinks President Bush's proposed tax break is a great thing for the everyday man, and not the break that it actually is for his rich buddies.

Does cable really want to give this administration even more ammunition by making the American cable consumer look like some kind of poster child? I don't think so.

In the months ahead Bush and his team will grab every straw to distract the American public from the inevitable fact that the government will make them pay for the war in Iraq.

But don't give this manipulative administration the temptation of entertaining such a sleazy distraction. Let them worry about the big stuff, instead, like cleaning up the messes they have left behind in Afghanistan and Baghdad.

Let them provide an economic stimulus for the American economy that has been in a tailspin for two and a half years.

And I don't think that stimulus is a sports tier for cable operators.