Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ten Times 57 Channels and Nothing On

As a California appeals court notes, Bruce Springsteen said it best in “57 Channels (And Nothing On):”

Man came by to hook up my cable TV,

We settled in for the night my baby and me,

We switched ’round and ’round ’til half-past dawn,

There was fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on.

You can almost hear the three-part harmony of the judges of a California appellate court as they upheld dismissal of a lawsuit by four subscribers against Time Warner Cable, Inc.:

“We do so keenly aware of how this issue affects millions of our fellow Southern California residents. With apologies to Bruce Springsteen, we appreciate the lament of cable television subscribers who feel that although they now receive 10 times 57 channels or more, mostly nothing’s on that they wish to view. We simply hold that federal pre-emption principles bar application of state consumer protection laws in this case. Thus, consumers must present their complaints to Congress or the Federal Communications Commission.”

In other words, yes, cable television sucks but we’re passing the buck anyways.

The state’s Second District Court of Appeal issued its ruling in the case of Sherry Fischer vs. Time Warner Cable Inc. Other states will likely follow it if they have similar cable TV lawsuits.

Backgrounder: In 2011, Time Warner paid the Los Angeles Lakers $3 billion for rights to televise Lakers games for 20 years. Time Warner’s subscription rates rose by $5 a month as a result of bundling the basketball games into enhanced basic cable. (Given the Lakers lousy last couple of seasons – Kobe injured and out for much of them – Time Warner might be having second-thoughts.) Then in 2013, Time Warner paid the L.A. Dodgers $8 billion to carry their baseball games for 25 years. The deal sent rates for enhanced basic cable up an additional four bucks month.

The $9-a-month hike for enhanced basic will cost subscribers $11 billion over the next 25 years.

Four subscribers cried foul. Neither Lakers nor Dodgers fans, they sued, claiming bundling of games with existing programs violated California laws against unfair competition. Compellingly they argued that 60 percent of the population doesn’t follow basketball and baseball but were being forced to pay for games they didn’t watch. (How about all those TV shopping shows?) They said viewers that want Lakers and Dodgers games should pay separately for them. The whole thing really gagged them, because as it is, Time Warner was slam-dunking an extra $9 charge down their throats. (They didn’t say that but it’s what they meant.)

Miles from the Staples Center basketball court in the real L.A. court, a judge agreed with Time Warner to dump the suit in what’s called a “demurrer,” which is simply an anachronistic legal term, meaning that even if facts in the case are true, the case is insufficient under law to continue. The subscribers appealed, wasting more than $9 a month. (Their lawyers must have been a sporting bunch or just hungry for an easy-grounder fee because the case had about as much chance as another Lakers Three-peat.) On February 23 the appellate court upheld the dismissal, saying federal communications law allows Time Warner to bundle programming like it did with Lakers and Dodgers games, and cited the “supremacy clause” of the federal Constitution, which makes state laws subservient, therefore California’s unfair competition statutes have no force in the case. Adding more punishment, the court ruled Time Warner could go after the litigants for money spent to defend their appeal. (Kind of like letting the winners pelt the losers’ bus with eggs as they leave.)

So, dear L.A. cable TV subscribers, enjoy the Lakers and Dodgers because you’ve paid admission.

Find R.D. Byron-Smith’s books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks and all online booksellers.

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