If you live in a city, near enough to the broadcast towers that send out television signals, and are OK receiving only the broadcasts that are available “over the air”, TV is free. Always has been, at least here in the United States.

Television stations pay the federal government a lot of money for the right to the radio frequencies on which they send out their broadcasts. And as part of the right to those frequencies, broadcasters are obligated to send out a signal that anyone with the right reception equipment can view, free of charge. Remember the whole analog-to-digital tuner uproar that took years to play out and finally resulted in a complete switchover just last year? It didn’t matter except to people who receive this over-the-air signal.

Get your TV through a cable? Or a satellite system? You didn’t care.

Cablevision, a mid-sized cable company serving mostly the New York City area, is in the middle of a fight with Fox TV over “retransmission rights”. Cablevision subscribers have been without Fox channels for about ten days now, because Fox wants Cablevsion to pay about double what they have been for the right to carry their signal on cable.

I’m a pragmatist. I can see both sides of most any issue, and I respect Fox’s right to charge whatever fee they want for the right to carry their signal. I also respect Cablevision’s position that they shouldn’t have to pay more “just because Fox says so”.

And now we have a problem.

Viewers are caught between the two big companies. Neither company really cares about that, and both are using the power of Public Relations to blame the other, knowing full well that eventually things will work out. Cablevision has more to lose than Fox, since people who like watching NFL Football or House will continue to do so in whatever way they can regardless of how they feel about Fox, while those with an alternative to Cablevision might leave.

And let me be clear: as someone who has had to suffer through rude customer service and high prices from Cablevision I have no great love for that company.

But I’m on Cablevision’s side in this dispute. For a very simple reason. It’s two words:

MUST CARRY

The U.S. Must Carry Rules specify that cable companies MUST allocate space in their systems for television stations with a broadcast signal. Sure, Cablevision wants to carry Fox programming, but it’s not like they have a choice; they have to carry Fox programming, just as Fox has to make their programming available over-the-air.

So with Must Carry in their back pocket, why does Fox think they should be paid anything by Cablevision for the “right” to carry their available-free-anyway programming?

Rant complete. Let’s look at the business change implications.

Fox and others make their programming available in lots of ways. You can see Fox shows (albeit not live) on Hulu, for example. And so far there’s a free version of Hulu.

You can also see certain Fox programming on your Apple TV. You can’t see NBC programming there, however. NBC will tell you that it’s for technical reasons, and sure enough there are some, but the real reason is that NBC wants Apple to pay them more for the rights to carry the programming than Apple’s been willing to ante up.

Again, if you have the right antenna, the programming is free, because like Fox, NBC is obligated to send out a signal to anyone who can “hear” it.

My sixteen-year-old son parroted the opinion of a music industry figure recently when he told me that he thought bandwidth providers ought to have to pay music labels a portion of revenue “just in case” people were downloading music over their wires. And when I explained why that didn’t make sense even he understood the fallacy in the argument.

The issues are similar, except Must Carry puts Fox in an even better place.

The right business change to fix all of this? Must Carry needs to go away. Then we’ll see who really wants to move the issue forward.

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