Two things strike me about News Corp.’s battle to get cable fees:
(1) Again and again lately, the company is surrendering the advertising battle. In newspapers, it is saying that advertising won’t support its high costs and so it will sacrifice traffic and advertising the hopes of building build pay walls. In MySpace, the company handed over its advertising fate to Google and then couldn’t produce. Now in TV — which is where Murdoch fils says the future of the company lies — they’re trying to eke fees from cable operators.
(Under must-carry rules, a station can demand premium placement — which would benefit audience and advertising — or can demand a fee, but the cable company can decline to pay and carry the station. That’s the stand-off occurring now.)
(2) News Corp. may succeed at getting fees from cable operators, but I predict that will raise prices for consumers as more and more fees are passed along; consumers will be further enraged that they have to spend money for bundles of channels they don’t want or watch; and that will give regulators the cause they need to demand a la carte pricing — which will end up hurting and likely killing second- and third-tier cable channels subsidized by bundles and wil hurt cable operators as they end up charging less.
Add to this the paper-tiger nature of News Corp. threat to take Fox stations off cable. Oh, no, they taunt on crawls across the screen, you won’t get American Idol. Except we will, online, on Hulu, co-owned by News Corp. For News Corp. knows that the value of its own stations as ad vehicles is diminishing as the value of internet distribution rises. And so then this story comes full circle as News Corp. will likely threaten to charge consumers on Hulu — again, a capitulation in the advertising model.
What we’re seeing is the disaggregation of another media form. We don’t buy albums; we buy singles. We don’t buy newspapers or magazines; we aggregate, curate, and link to the best stories we like, bypassing editors’ packaging. We don’t go to bookstores to get the books the system decides to put on the shelves; we buy what we want from Amazon. We listen to radio less and listen to our own playlists more (a trend that will only accelerate as we listen to new forms of radio on our phones). Now we will end up picking and choosing TV channels and even shows, diminishing the power network and station programmers’ and cable MSO’s hold over us.
At the highest level, what we’re seeing is the death of the mass audience — and the value of distribution — and the advertising model that supported it.
I don’t think advertising is dead. I think it’s dying for mass companies with high cost structures. Advertising will shrink, as Bob Garfield argues in the Chaos Scenario, and it will migrate to new media and new forms. News Corp. knows that; every media company finally does.
So I think we’re seeing News Corp. milk the dying cash cow. Newspapers aren’t going to grow and will shrivel and sometimes die. The value of local stations is only going to shrink. (MySpace was a mistake.) So News Corp. is begging for cash wherever it can get it — from readers online or viewers on cable (via cable companies’ billing) — no matter that there’s no strategy there.