small cable companies and “downright unpopular” channels

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In our galaxy, today . . .

Small cable companies competing with the likes of Comcast and other massive, consolidated media companies are struggling. Because of the scale of large cable companies, rural and small town distributors find themselves in an arms race . . . but not between, say, two major world powers. More like the US vs. Moldova.

And not with weapons but with cable packages increasingly bloated with unwatched (and sometimes reviled) channels. You want ESPN because your subscribers demand it? Well, you also have to take our new 24-hour channel featuring only spin-offs involving bi-polar chefs-over-40 with 20-something hairstyles yelling at actual 20-somethings. Yes, no one will watch it. Yes, you have to carry it.

Small cable companies gripe about the imbalance in this industry whenever someone will listen. Of course, the only one listening is the FCC. When the FCC recently made a “notice of inquiry” regarding the lack of diversity on tv, small cable companies lept on the chance with surprising rhetorical skill.

If SmallTown Cable wants to carry the Awesome Channel because its subscribers want to see The Awesome Monster Show, for example, it must also take the Slightly Less Awesome Channel, the Not Really Awesome Channel, and the Downright Unpopular Channel,” ACA added. “No questions, no exceptions. When SmallTown Cable (or its buying group) tells AwesomeCorp. that its subscribers only really care about The AwesomeMonster Show, AwesomeCorp. says, in effect, ‘too bad.’

Nothing is surprising about the position the American Cable Association takes here. But the way ACA discusses the issue shows that they are thinking about a broader audience than FCC wonks. Terms like “AwesomeCorp” (code for Disney, a powerhouse programmer) show how ACA is recognizing that language matters. Will the FCC change policies to favor smaller and less lobby-rich companies? Not too likely. Will less policy-aware consumers respond to this  language. More likely. Especially when ACA proposals mean a slimmer bundle and smaller cable bill.

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Combatting the bloated cable packages that keep conglomerates afloat and on top of smaller companies means gathering a coalition. A strong coalition will include public-interest groups and the public itself. Perhaps we are seeing a change in small cable’s communication tactics. After all, technical papers rarely reform the system. Accessible language and even some cable policy humor, as oxymoronic as that sounds, may be the answer to distortions in this market.

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