Sound Bites Await Hearst In TWC Battle
A month ago a U.S. House hearing delved into who suffers when stations go dark in carriage disputes. Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt was asked a pointed question by Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette. One of two possible answers was sought: yes or no.
Here’s how it went down:
DeGette: “Do you think blackouts, as a result of the failure of these agreements, are fair to consumers no matter how rare or how often they might be?”
Britt’s a smart guy, but it doesn’t take a genius to know he had little choice. Congress doesn’t exactly appreciate responses indicating the American people need to deal with it as big business works through standoffs.
Actually, it was not Britt who appeared at the hearing, though he would have been a worthy candidate. He was not one of the executives trapped by the no-elaboration line of questioning.
But a current adversary was. And it was David Barrett, CEO of the Hearst station group, who had to offer up the obligatory “no.”
TWC and Hearst are now locked in a fee dispute, which is impacting 13 communities. Among the damage, Hearst-owned ABC affiliates in markets such as Boston and Pittsburgh have gone dark in TWC homes. In other areas, TWC is importing signals from stations hundreds of miles away.
Blackouts, of course, bring bare-knuckled marketing – ads and Web sites and other maneuvers – to try and convince customers that the other side is causing them to miss favored shows.
So, TWC has seized on the good fortune that it was Barrett straight-jacketed before the Congressional panel June 27 and not Britt. The cable operator’s propaganda says Hearst has darkened stations even as Barrett said just a few weeks ago “broadcaster blackouts are unfair to consumers.”
Ah, the hypocrisy!
The agitprop during carriage disputes isn’t much different than a political campaign. Statements can be taken out of context or twisted while looking to score points. Hearst has launched a radio campaign encouraging viewers to contact TWC and complain.
But considering TWC is using Congressional testimony somewhat craftily against it, Hearst could certainly fight fire with fire. There’s plenty to cut and paste from Britt’s testimony before a Senate body in late 2010.
At one point, the TWC CEO was asked by Sen. John Kerry (D) whether he’s in favor of getting rid of free over-the-air TV. Then, all Americans would have no choice but to pay for TV service.
“That’s an alternative,” Britt said. “That is an alternative.”
Hello, sound bite. Cue up Hearst ad: “Time Warner Cable’s CEO wants to make sure you pay his company to watch TV!”
(Britt’s extended comments touched on “special privileges” given to broadcasters, while he argued Americans paying for TV service might get a financial break if, say, Fox became a cable channel.)
How about this one from Britt on what happens when stations are blacked out?
“It is the consumer that is being held hostage and that isn’t a good thing,” he said.
Plenty there for a Hearst jab. No need to hire Karl Rove or McCann-Erickson to find an angle.
(Britt was commenting on proposals to find ways to keep signals on the air when negotiations break down. He said TWC is pushing for a better framework for resolving impasses.)
At another point during the hearing, Sen. Kerry asked whether broadcasters have a case that cable operators can pay more in carriage fees (without passing those on to consumers) because they are highly profitable. Britt dodged that one, but later said: “We have plenty of competition, so what we end up charging consumers is very much determined by a competitive marketplace.”
Hearst would have enough to go with: “Time Warner Cable’s CEO says his company faces tough competition, why should its business problems cost you more?”
All’s fair in love and carriage wars.