When it comes to “hearts and minds,” Time Warner Cable is going to lose its fight with CBS. As in, it will be utterly decimated. The reason for this is simple: CBS is the most popular network on broadcast television and Time Warner Cable is one of the most universally loathed entities in modern media. I can’t think of one person, myself included, whom I’ve ever heard say, “Yeah, Time Warner rules! It provides excellent service at a fair price and has really done right by me in every interaction I’ve ever had with one of its cheery, not-at-all-DMV-like representatives!”
TWC is my cable and internet provider, and while I haven’t had any major problems with it over the past several months — aside from the occasional service interruptions for brief periods of time that I have to admit I’ve just come to expect by now — this lull follows a good six months of absolute insanity and incompetence from Time Warner. We’re talking channels appearing and disappearing as it tried to figure out which package upgrade I’d ordered, not one but two new internet routers shipped to me when mine failed, and calls made to my home to check on progress at five in the morning because the company spent months still believing I was living on the East Coast (even though it was sending me bills here in Los Angeles). These kinds of horror stories aren’t exactly exclusive to me either.
Here’s the thing, though: Time Warner Cable very likely won’t lose its overall fight with CBS because it can’t lose. Sure, people can abandon TWC in favor of DirecTV or Dish but if you live in an area that has Time Warner cable and internet and you want either cable or internet, you’re pretty much screwed. It’s almost certain that TWC has the monopoly. In essence, it’s got you held hostage. Even if you decide to become an all-online media home, where are you going to get your internet service?
By now you probably know — you absolutely know if you live in New York, Los Angeles or Dallas — that Time Warner pulled CBS, Showtime and TMC programming last week, replacing it with a slate that blames CBS for the outage by forcing its hand in the two companies’ recent, ugly contract negotiations. It’s the Ike Turner, “See what you made me do, bitch?” model of reasoning. Meanwhile, the cable provider has been inundating its own air with political-style attack ads claiming that CBS has gone to war with its own audience and that heroic Time Warner was only forced to stand up for itself and, of course, for you, the viewing public. The whole fight is a complicated one, the kind of thing we’ve seen more and more of lately and will continue to as new media upsets the old balance of power, and it involves the proposed doubling of CBS’s retransmission fee from one to two dollars and Time Warner’s refusal to pay up. (It practically goes without saying that TWC is in the wrong; the provider pays five dollars per subscriber for ESPN, which isn’t the number one network in the country, so two bucks per sub isn’t much to ask.)
What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that even if you remove from the equation the fact that Time Warner Cable sucks, you’re still left with the way most people approach a public tantrum like this. Psychologically, you’re a lot more likely to blame the people who engage in an action that pisses you off than you are to blame those in the background who supposedly made that action necessary. This is why strikes that directly impact the general public negatively, the people who just want to go about their already hectic lives enjoying as much convenience as possible, are always iffy propositions. It’s the strikers who are often going to take the brunt of the blame from people because they’re the ones taking the action, even if that action is justified. Just ask New York City’s transit workers during the Christmas strike of 2005.
Again, though, there’s a good chance that it hardly matters. Time Warner is doing what it’s doing because it’s confident in the assumption that most people don’t really have anyplace else to go. It’s got a monopoly, which means it can do whatever the hell it wants. At least until football season starts. That’s probably what’s behind the timing of Time Warner’s move anyway: CBS won’t dare allow its contracts with the NFL and the SEC to go unseen and Time Warner won’t risk an all-out revolt from customers and mass exodus to Verizon FIOS or whatever. Still, this juvenile back-and-forth could go on for weeks until then.