02 March 2014

Christie, Putin, Incognito, and Comcast

It isn’t much of a challenge to figure out what the first three assholes in this title have in common. And their victims are easily identified.

But as I sit here in Lotus-Eater-Land, with my feet in the warm sand of Saline Beach and my eyes squinting behind extra-dark polarized shades, I trip out looking at the green hills surrounding the beach.  If I focus, I can spy an occasional family of goats picking its way across the face of the hill. I can indulge in the sculptured beauty of the crescent white sand beach and listen to the hiss of the wavelets breaking at the water’s edge, interrupted by the bleating of a kid who has temporarily lost his mom as she leads the family across the hill. The soft sounds are of a piece with the pleasing color patterns: sand, water, sky, and the exotic filmy pareos worn by the stunningly bare beachgoers. All these sensory inputs complement one another and induce a dreamy semi consciousness.

So much for Saline Beach with eyes open. Close your eyes, and you see other things with equal clarity but that picture’s theme is not tranquility: it is dissonance-- A jarring black and white picture that jerks you back to an unpleasant reality.

With eyes closed, I am able to see this morning’s New York Times.

What I see is Comcast snapping its ever-larger towel at everybody else in its locker room. All of us who have either a cable box or a cable internet connection will ultimately be the victims of this economic bully. We’ll all suffer the welts and the experience the frustration born of  helplessness.  There is no place for us to hide: the Comcasts of the world have us penned in and they can snap towels, add traffic cones to direct us into stalled pathways, send in the tanks, or otherwise dominate us at will.

“How did this come to pass?" you ask?  Okay, I’ll tell you.

The Genesis:

Book One:

In the beginning, there was broadcast radio, followed by broadcast television, and it was good.--at least for those of us who could  drop a wire out the window or put an aluminum antenna on the roof within range of the broadcast signal. We tolerated staticy sound and snowy tv pictures to be entertained by Milton Berle and enlightened by Walter Cronkite, but we paid no supplementary fees to get the signal because our government, having sensed the commonweal would be advanced by the citizenry’s ability to listen to Father Coughlin on the radio and later watch Hopalong Cassidy on Sunday afternoons, annually gifted billions of dollars worth of spectrum to broadcast station owners.  They, in turn, developed a cannot-lose business model: they took the 24/7 free spectrum, chopped it up into millions of 30 and 60 second bits, and sold them to purveyors of soap flakes and tobacco carcinogens. Hey, spread the word: “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette.”

Book Two:
In this chapter, the creator gives us cable.  And it too was good. We could see Archie and Edith Bunker as clearly as if they lived next door and we now could see that Walter Cronkite was ageing gracefully. But progress was not free.  Now we taxpayers were paying twice for our tv picture: once via our spectrum gift to the broadcast networks, and again in a modest fee to the cable company.

Book Three:

Cue the serpent: The broadcasters, while continuing to gorge on the free apples the U.S. government constantly piled on their pushcart, noted the increased popularity of cable tv and were envious this garden contained a profit stream from which they did not drink. “Enough is not enough”, was the new cognitive dissonance speak: it was not enough the taxpayers annually renewed their spectrum gift; it was not enough the taxpayers endured beer and ginzu knife commercials in order to watch the Mets finish last again. The broadcasters wanted more.   And so it came to pass the broadcasters and the cable tv companies traveled to the secret bank vault they had in common, and conversed. While we journalists are privileged to refuse to reveal our sources, I can nevertheless provide you with a transcript of their brief conversation:

Broadcasters: In the words of company’s inspirational icon, Vito Corleone, we want to "dip our beaks" into your stream. This is a friendly conversation, but should you decline to pay us this small tribute, we will effectively put you out of business by denying your cable customers the ability to see our beer commercials and football games.

Cable Companies: No way. You guys are already getting monies from the government and your advertisers. If I pay you, I would have to raise my prices.  Don’t be a bully.

Broadcasters: Name calling?  Don’ t act like a child. Sticks and stones ........ . We are talking  Pay or No Play. Screw your customers; just charge em more money.

Cable Companies: Yup, that’ll do it.

And so it came to pass that consumer/taxpayers pay three times;   i) taxes that would have been relieved if the spectrum were sold instead of given away free to the broadcasters, ii) fees to the cable company to compensate it for its investment in infrastructure, the salaries of of its employees, and profit, and iii) a surcharge that the cable companies pass through to its customers to compensate for the fees it must pay to distribute the broadcasters’ government-subsidized content.  And in return for this “triple play” cable fee deal, we get to buy the “loaded” car model: if cable customers want watch football games, they must subscribe to a package that includes Jerry Springer, The Price is Right,  and Sean Hannity.

Book Four:
The Almighty saw that her constituents were suffering under the lash of the towel snapping cable company overseers, and she relieved their burden by developing a new means of delivering content.  She called it “Streaming.” And it was good. Now the taxpayer/consumers could discard their costly cable boxes, turn their backs on broadcast content and commercials, and get stuff sent directly to their computers (and display it on their 55” flat screens as well as their 5” iPhones) from new content distributors, such as Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, etc (Can  Google be far behind?) With those channels of communication, they could fill their screens night and day with stuff they WANTED, and the cost would be pennies a day: Netflix is $7.99 a month, Amazon is cheaper still.  Hoorah, we are liberated!

Book Five:

Last week, when Comcast announced it was paying gazillions for Time Warner Cable, its CEO pitched for government approval of the planned merger by publicly pledging Comcast’s allegiance to the priciple of Net Neutrality. This means, as I understand it, that Comcast would treat equally all who send internet signals to Comcast customers, from individual emailers and baby-picture swappers like you and me, to large users like iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and the other content “streamers”.

Okay, I decide, in that case let em merge, because in ten years, fewer people will want to buy monopoly-priced cable tv packages that include junk they don’t watch. We will all turn in our cable boxes, and we’ll pick and choose content from companies that stream their offerings, be they football games, movies, independent creations like House of Cards, Breaking Bad,  or whatever.

Book Six:

Uh, oh. Not so fast, dahlink. The President of Comcast didn’t win his job at a church bingo contest. (Actually he inherited it from his father but the smart gene survived the succession process.)  Streaming  threatens his entire business model. How will he respond?

Well, inasmuch as he will have absolute control over half the internet traffic in the United States, he could see to it the streamers’ signal never reached the consumer, or at that when it did arrive it looked looked like dial-up from 25 years ago. You remember dial-up? No?  You should.

Wait a minute here: Would Comcast intentionally interfere with a signal put out by a non-broadcaster?  Nah. It was just a coincidence that all those Comcast customers were complaining their Netflix downloads were slow, pixelated, or otherwise unwatchable and the FCC four years ago found that Comcast intentionally and illegally degraded a provider’s signal.  Who remembers details like that? Wikipedia, that’s who.

But the Comcast CEO’s recently embraced Net Neutrality, so that streamers would be treated equally with everyone else. So we have nothing to worry about, right? Eh, not exactly.  Y'see, these people invented cognitive dissonance. Two days after pledging net neutrality, the Comcast CEO announced that Comcast would charge Netflix an extra fee to carry its signal!  Huh? What happened to Net Neutrality? “ Ahh”, says Comcast, “this is a technical subject, you wouldn’t understand.  Trust me.”   

Trust them? This harkens back to one of my favorite Henny Youngman stories: A woman comes home early from a shopping trip and finds her husband in bed with another woman. She screams at him, “How could you do this to me? Our marriage is based on years of trust and here I find you in bed with another woman?” The husband turns from his paramour, looks at his wife and says, “Woman?  What woman?”

So now Netflix needs to pay a fee to Comcast to deliver Netflix’s signal to your computer and tv set. Where is that money coming from? Netflix shareholders? Hah, the $7.99 per month will soon be history, Amazon is next, then iTunes, they will all fall in line. Comcast, (which not only has a size advantage over the other cable companies, it also owns NBC and therefore is also the beneficiary of a government spectrum handout) will lead the mob. It and the other cable companies will snap their towels, rearrange the traffic cones, and the taxpayer/consumers can add another layer to the monthly fee we pay to watch the Giants win 7 games in a 16 game season, and have Jerry Springer and Al Jazeera on our program guide. You don’t like Jerry Springer or Al Jazeera? So just pay for them and don’t watch them. That’s the cable company’s version of Freedom of Choice.

Book Seven:

I can hardly imagine.  I need a rest.

A bientot.

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