OFF THE GRID

ABC Almost Pulls the Plug on the Oscars—and Dies a Little More

Mar 8, 10 | 7:53 AM   byMichael Wolff
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My 84-year-old mother, a cantankerous person, is a Cablevision subscriber who I contacted minutes before the Oscar ceremonies were to commence for a man-on-the-street reaction to ABC’s decision to pull the program because of its dispute with her cable provider. Although irate about losing the Food Channel not long ago, she turned out to be sanguine about the Oscars: “What kind of idiot would watch that? You have to do it with 3-D glasses. I already have a headache.”

I briefly tried to wade in before making a quick retreat, and, then, politely asked if she was still suffering the loss of the Food Channel: “You fool, it’s back. It’s been back for weeks. They just do this to make people mad. But it all means nothing. Nobody is serious.”

My mother is generally right, if seldom pleasant, and, indeed, within minutes of the Oscars starting, ABC was running a bulletin across the bottom of the broadcast announcing that it had settled with Cablevision.

Both sides are mum about who bested the other in this contest. ABC reportedly wanted $1 a month for each of Cablevision’s 3.1 million subscribers. Cablevision was reportedly not willing to go higher than two-bits per household. According to the Los Angeles Times, “One person familiar with the deal said it came out to about 55 to 65 cents per subscriber; another said the figure was closer to 27 to 37 cents.” Nobody, in other words, has any idea.

But we get the picture. By adding a little brinksmanship to the negotiation—pulling the signal on the eve of an “event” broadcast—ABC probably forced the cable company to come up with a few more pennies.

This will be the new model, a series of blackouts at critical moments, surrounded by much righteous phumphering by each side, ending in begrudging resolution. This will happen around the country at regional cable operators, in order to force the larger cable systems, like Time Warner and Comcast, to conform to a new pricing standard (be it 27 to 37 cents or 55 to 65 cents). We will then, shortly, get to a bit of national brinksmanship, ABC facing down Comcast—which, in addition to being the largest cable provider, is also soon to be the owner of NBC, one of ABC’s leading competitors—on the eve of some seminal television moment.

What’s being fooled with here is the idea of certainty. Perhaps the strongest thing that television has going for it, amid the fractionalization of media, is that it is always there. For nearly half a century television has been dependable—not necessarily interesting, but nevertheless constant. Even if fewer people believed television was still God.

My mother reports that lesser mortals than her out in New Jersey, who could not imagine life without the Oscars, were in a dither of digital antennas and other jury-rigged strategies (my brother helpfully called our mother to suggest she could get the Oscars on Hulu, for which he duly received a tongue lashing about 3-D glasses).

As the carriage wars commence, we unhook a little more from the very idea of a provider. Hence, in the future, no one can be counted on to provide, or to subscribe—we will all become media foragers.

Oh yes, my mother is surely right about something else: 3-D isn’t going to cut it.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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