Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Hardly Cooperative"—Dissent within the NCTC

In response to my last post loyal reader Jeff has pointed to a very interesting story in Multichannel News that focuses on dissension in the ranks of the NCTC following recent changes in membership that give large national cable companies influence over what had been an alliance of small, local companies. There's plenty of meat on the story but what really caught my attention was the suggestion that the larger companies subscriber numbers don't necessarily add as much weight to contract negotiations as one might think and the even more interesting revelation that the coop already has a number of large overbuilders, including Verizon, as members.

Big cable and little systems:
One of the complaints that the older, smaller members of the coop have is that the larger members don't really add their numbers to the common pool in a way that makes everyone's prices cheaper:
By its own account, the NCTC said that typically, about half of the co-op’s subscribers — between 10 million and 12 million — participate in most of its programming agreements.

The rest, mostly the larger MSO members such as Cox, Charter Communications and Cablevision Systems, cut their own separate arrangements with programmers, save for a handful of deals through the co-op. That, according to smaller operators and programmers alike, diminishes the value of the scale those larger members bring. (Cox, Charter and Cablevision represent about 14 million subscribers, or more than half of the 27 million claimed by the NCTC).
No doubt the smaller companies do benefit to a degree. But the big guys still usually get better deals. So why do the big guys bother? Apparently so that they can have a fallback if they get in too big a tousle with a stubborn content provider:
The latest example of that was Cablevision Systems, which joined the co-op in 2009 essentially to take advantage of its agreement with Tennis Channel. Cablevision had been in a heated battle with Tennis for months over its placement on a sports tier, which the programmer had resisted. The MSO was able to circumvent that resistance by joining the NCTC, which already had a deal in place that allowed members to put the channel on a tier.

That Tennis Channel agreement is set to expire next year and according to people familiar with the situation, the network is likely to seek to remove that tier provision from their NCTC agreement.
So Cablevision, which seldom actually adds its numbers to the deal-making in a way that benefits the rest of the NCTC, does uses the NCTC's contract when it can't get a benefit any other way. The logical response of the content providers is to no longer give the smaller NCTC participants a better deal than they'd give the better-heeled big cable companies. Not an ideal outcome for the little guys.

The NCTC has no policy against competing members joining the coop
Since the NCTC has pretty much refused to say publicly why it won't allow LUS to join by far the most reasonable idea has been the one the city of Lafayette has consistently put forward: Cox has used its new influence as the largest single member of the organization and its seat on the board to keep LUS out. I've assumed the NCTC were unwilling to say that because that motive is so blatantly anti-competitive.

But it turns out that they may not want to say that they won't accept new members who compete with established members because they know that such a claim would be transparently false. There is apparently no policy, official or otherwise, that bars competing members of the industry from belonging to the NCTC. It is, in fact, common practice:
The NCTC counts the three largest overbuilders as members — RCN, WideOpenWest and Knology — and WOW even has representation on its board (WOW vice president of programming Peter Smith is NCTC vice chairman). The largest telco competitor, Verizon Communications, also is a member (through its ownership of the former overbuilder, GTE Ventures). Missing from the ranks is AT&T, which has a competing video service, U-Verse. The reason: AT&T has stressed on several occasions that because U-Verse is an IPTV service (its programming is delivered via broadband and at the demand of the consumer, not in a continuous stream), it should not be considered a cable-TV service by regulators.
An "Overbuilder" is what LUS is—someone who comes in and builds a new system over an area in which there is already one. If anyone were going to be excluded simply because they are competition to established members of the coop it would be these larger overbuilders whose business model is to seek to expand by building new systems in established territories when the industry standard is to expand not by competition but by acquisition. With both long-standing overbuilders and Verizon's new fiber to the home system both accorded a place at NCTC table it is all but impossible to figure out a (consistent, rational) reason for LUS to be excluded.

Just exactly what is left but Cox's simple spite and a blind determination damage the one community that has defied them?

Consider that the next time you notice Cox claiming to be "your friend in the digital age."

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