FCC Staff really starting to get the hang of this “enforcement” thing . . .

In another sign that the FCC has gotten serious in crackdown on cable abuse of market power — and that this message has penetrated to the staff level — consider the case of the NFL Network and Time Warner.

When Time Warner took over the Adelphia systems, it immediately removed the NFL Network from the Adelphia systems. Time Warner stated that NFL Network wanted too much for basic tier carriage and didn’t accept an offer to move to digital tier. Some of us suspect that, as usual, Time Warner has decided to put the squeeze on an unaffiliated network.

But Time Warner did not give subscribers the mandatory 30-day notice before dropping the channel. In theory, such notice allows customers to make their preferences known and threaten to take their business elsewhere. It’s a standard sort of consumer protection clause that ensures that if you are one of the people who buy cable for the channel in question, you can unsubscribe before paying for TV you don’t want.

So the NFL Network filed an emergency complaint and request for injuctive relief with the FCC. In less than 24 hours, the FCC issued an Order telling TW to continue to show NFL Network until resolution of the complant. The FCC also set an expedited briefing schedule, so it will have a complete record by the 20th.

Wow. The last time I remember anything like this was when TW temporarily dropped ABC from its line up in 2000 because of a carriage dispute. Even then, the FCC didn’t move this fast. That got resolved from public pressure and because yanking ABC did serious harm to the then-pending AOL-TW merger.

One must wonder why TW didn’t simply comply with the 30-day notification requirement in the first place? Possibly they wanted to avoid getting into the NFL pre-season games. NFL Network will start airing pre-season games on August 11. If customers get used to watching NFL Network and then get cut off, they are much more likely to complain than if NFL network is still airing warmed over programming.

Also, you have to figure that TW just didn’t care about the FCC rule. And why should they have? The FCC hasn’t shown any particular interest in enforcing its cable rules before, and certainly not over shafting an independent programmer on a technicality. As I have said to FCC folks before: “if you treat your rules like a joke, everyone else will too.”

I’ve heard one or two folks speculate that the swift action by staff is a case of election year politics and NFL power. After all, the systems suddenly deprived of NFL Network are primarily Red States, swing states, and places where Republicans face a hard time (Cleveland, Buffalo, and Dallas, for example). Sorry, but that strikes me as phenomenally unlikely. Staff simply don’t pay that much attention to these kinds of political issues (as opposed to not pissing off particular members of Congress responsible for their budget) unless it gets pushed on them from above. And there is no way this Order could have come out this quickly if the seqence of events was RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman calling Kevin Martin and saying “We need action on this right away!” Nor can I believe that this rises to that level so quickly, no matter how much Repblicans in those markets love pre-season football.

No, I think staff has gotten clear on the fact that if they want to keep their jobs (and Martin has acquired a fearsome reputation as a Chairman willing to transfer folks to truly nasty places if they don’t behave) they will act promptly on cable complaints and make it clear that FCC rules apply to cable operators.

Whether this trend lasts more than a week or not remains to be seen. But it is yet another straw in the wind that blows in the direction of cable’s changing fortunes at the FCC.

Stay tuned . . .

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