During difficult economic times, Americans cut back on everything from travel to eating out. But the vast majority of households continue to pay substantial monthly bills for cable TV. The reason is clear: Cable provides good value, giving consumers continuous access to a vast array of channels. But now, that is threatened by a dangerous trend: the removal of independent networks from the cable dial.
Just this month in North Carolina, Time Warner Cable removed two independent networks, including my network, Ovation, which is dedicated to the arts. Our programming focuses on content across a wide array of artistic categories: dance, theater, music, film, the visual arts, literature, design, architecture and more. Ovation provides artful programming not found on other networks.
Although documentaries about Manet and Jackson Pollack may not be as popular as the latest season of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” Ovation has a substantial, growing and passionate audience. In fact, according to Nielsen, our audience grew 57 percent last year, making us the third-fastest-growing network on cable.
In an apples-to-apples comparison, our network draws bigger audiences than 23 other networks that are still carried by Time Warner, including ESPN Classic, Fuse, Logo and VH1 Classic.
So why is Time Warner dropping an arts network with fast-growing ratings while keeping so many sports, music and general entertainment networks that cost more and reach fewer consumers?
The answer is that those other networks belong to big corporations like Disney, News Corp, Viacom and others. When Time Warner Cable negotiates with those companies, it has to take the full bundle of networks – both top-rated networks like ESPN and ABC Family and low-rated networks like ESPN Classic and SoapNet. Some of those companies also own local broadcast stations, which gives them further clout in negotiations.
Ovation doesn’t own any other networks, and we are not owned by a big corporation. We are simply an independent company trying to put great, unique content on TV. So when Time Warner Cable negotiates with us, we can’t threaten to take anything away if we don’t get a fair deal. We can only stand on the merits of our content and ask Time Warner to uphold its responsibility to its customers and communities. In this case, that argument fell on deaf ears.
Time Warner Cable is not solely responsible for this situation, nor are the big media conglomerates. Each is trying to do what it thinks is right for its shareholders. But the combined effect is very harmful for the tens of millions of Americans who pay their hard-earned dollars for a cable subscription.
Those consumers deserve diversity on the dial. They don’t want to turn on their TVs and have 500 channels owned by just five or six companies. They don’t want their entire cable lineup to be sports, pay-per-view pornography and homogenized, conglomerate-owned entertainment and news.
But that is the direction we are heading. In theory, the FCC is supposed to have rules that protect independent networks, but in practice the cable companies’ armies of lawyers and lobbyists make enforcement a sham.
So it’s up to viewers to take the power back. Ovation asked viewers to make their voices heard, and we have been thrilled that in just a few weeks over 30,000 signed a petition asking Time Warner Cable to bring back Ovation. Time Warner claims to listen to its consumers. As the chorus grows to bring back Ovation, we will see whether that is just lip service.
More Americans need to speak up about media diversity. If we stay silent, then there will be less diversity on the dial, compromising the great promise of cable TV and eroding the value that so many millions of Americans pay for each month.
If we tell our pay-TV companies that, if they want our business, we expect them to keep their doors open to independent voices, then the cable companies will listen. No matter what your favorite channels happen to be, that surely is a cause worth standing up for.
Chad E. Gutstein is a partner and the chief operating officer of Ovation, the only cable television network exclusively devoted to the arts.