Comcast, Tennis Channel Verbiage Volley Proves Leverage Matters

Who knew the funniest guy in showbiz was working for Comcast’s PR department?

As NBC and other networks struggle to find hit comedies, who knew the funniest guy in showbiz was working for Comcast’s PR department?

Asked about the litigation involving the Tennis Channel — which has maintained that Comcast exhibited favoritism toward sports networks it owns, Golf Channel and NBC Sports Network, at Tennis’ expense — the spokesman responded, “Comcast’s decision to carry Tennis Channel was the product of legitimate business considerations, not affiliation.”

See what they did there? Ha ha, ha ha ha.

But wait, it gets better. Comcast has also sought to justify its actions by saying Tennis Channel doesn’t possess the same appeal as the Golf Channel. Since both are relatively narrow sports most desirable in media terms for attracting an upper-income bracket, issuing such a straight-faced assertion requires balls, and not of the golf-sized variety.

Major Hollywood players have always used their clout to gain a competitive advantage, from selling TV shows to booking movies. It’s as much a part of the atmosphere, of the culture, as expensive cars and lying about how much you liked someone’s last project.

Frankly, what’s the point of being a global media conglomerate if you can’t, you know, throw your weight around?

Indeed, in an increasingly uncertain marketplace, one can argue these companies would be remiss if they didn’t explore every reasonable avenue to maximize returns and shareholder value.

While there are rules to curtail these practices, the key word in Comcast’s statement, “legitimate,” is where the trouble always begins — creating gray areas that inevitably lead to friction and amusing press releases.

Because so many decisions are subjective and hardly amount to an exact science, there are various ways to explain choosing one commodity over another, and to debate whether that boils down to good business sense or more nefarious (and usually self-serving) motives.

Even so, the existence of federal guidelines has less prevented companies from exercising their corporate muscle than inspired them to find creative methods and to coin colorful euphemisms to mask (or more charitably, cast the most favorable light on) their underlying objectives, which is to devise the means of making two plus two equal five without merely pressuring their accounting departments to do it. Hence the sudden popularity of terms like “synergy” or “monetize.”

What’s different now is all the arrows are seemingly pointing toward an entertainment business that’s becoming more a la carte and directly transactional — as in, “If you want this particular show or channel, pay for it.”

Technology threatens to break the major players’ chokehold on the process, or at least pry open cracks in their armor. Taken to its extremes, the promise of new devices and means of delivering content can help level the playing field, allowing smaller players to overcome and bypass institutional handicaps by peddling their wares directly to the consumers.

Another recent forecast of a shift in this direction came from media analyst Craig Moffett, who maintains that cord-cutting — the phenomenon of people dumping cable or satellite dishes to access programming more inexpensively online — is real, a potentially chilling prospect for multichannel video programming distributors.

Witness the dispute between Cablevision and Viacom, with the cable owner arguing the studio’s practice of bundling its less-desirable channels with higher-profile ones represented an “all-or-nothing approach” that is “illegal and anti-consumer.” It’s merely the latest in a series of similar conflicts, which — even with all those fraying cords — show little sign of abating.

In theory, it would be wonderful if everyone every TV show, movie or piece of talent could be fairly judged as a free agent, standing alone and evaluated based on individual merit.

That said, those accustomed to a media world built on leverage aren’t going to yield their traditions and perks without a fight. So for now, if you hope to make a bundle, it’s still probably much better to have a bundle.

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