Marketplace Scratch Pad

What the puck?

Scott Jagow Oct 14, 2009

I plopped down on the couch yesterday to watch a good ole hockey game, only to discover that it wasn’t on because Directv and the Versus network are having a nasty feud. Now, you might not care that I missed my hockey game, but there may be something here to care about.

Here’s Directv’s explanation:

Unfortunately, Versus is no longer available on DIRECTV. Comcast, the largest cable company in the U.S. and our largest competitor, owns the channel and has forced us to pull it down…

… if we were to accept their unreasonable demands, we would have no choice but to pass on the increase in cost to our valued customers. We do not want this to happen, especially in these difficult economic times. That’s why we’re standing firm in our negotiations with Comcast.

Directv says Comcast is demanding “outrageous” new programming fees. Comcast says Directv wants to put Versus on a new tier and charge customers more to get it, and that Directv is lying about the rate hike.

Here’s why this childish bickering has broader interest: Comcast is a content provider AND a cable company. Let’s say Comcast is asking for higher fees. Why wouldn’t they? Yes, fewer people are watching Versus right now, but Directv may be losing subscribers over this. And that’s a win for Comcast. So what are they more concerned with?

These feuds and conflicting interests may become more uh, universal if Comcast gets majority ownership of NBC Universal. Today, Vivendi shareholders met in France to talk about the possibility of selling their stake.

Comcast already owns several other cable channels besides Versus, including E! and the Golf Channel. If Comcast gets control of NBC Universal, it will have much more content, including Hulu. The end of free TV on the web?

The group, Free Press, is lobbying against the Comcast-NBC Universal deal:

The idea of this mega-merger raises many troubling questions regarding media concentration, competition and the public interest. The union of Comcast and NBC Universal would create a juggernaut large enough to dictate what programming U.S. consumers can watch, and whether independent and diverse viewpoints will be heard on the largest cable systems and on the Internet.

Last week on Marketplace, reporter Jeremy Hobson looked at what this would mean for NBC Universal:

Analyst Laura Martin at Soleil Securities says GE’s frugality has been downright harmful to NBC.

Laura Martin: They’ve been cutting back and doing stupid things like putting Leno in prime time, which has really destroyed a lot of value and angered a lot of advertisers, because they’re trying to save money.

If Comcast runs the show, Martin expects NBC will have better programming.

But for some reason, Comcast’s cable rival Time Warner is overjoyed that Comcast might get NBC Universal. The CEO’s quote:

“We love to see our competitors taking risks,” Bewkes said.

I don’t know. I don’t see a lot of risk, but I can see the potential for more blackouts in my future.

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