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Cable’s coupon alternative: Astroturf, anyone?

August 21st, 2007

A cable company scheme to make hay from the digital TV transition has entered a new phase. An Ohio cable operator, as you may recall, floated a plan to offer local channels for free via cable TV in lieu of government-discounted DTV converter boxes. Two other small cable companies are now on board, TWICE reports, and a web site has been launched under the banner of the “Save Our Sets Coalition” (SOS).

As I’ve said before, this is an innovative plan. But the air of disingenuousness about it is just getting thicker. Save Our Sets, on the about page of its site, calls itself “a nonpartisan advocacy group.” Yet, as of this date, nowhere on the site do I find a clear disclosure of the group’s links to the cable industry.

I smell Astroturf.

Don’t companies know that consumers are becoming wise to fake grassroots organizations? How sad that a creative plan, which might stand on its merits, is being marketed in this manner. I suppose the next thing they will do is try to scare up some civic groups to lend their name to the effort.

The proposal, initially promoted by Massillon Cable TV, would allow satellite TV or other multichannel video providers to voluntarily participate. The operators would offer local TV stations—including the new DTV multicast channels—free for seven years. Like the DTV coupon program, the SOS plan is aimed at viewers who watch traditional analog TV using an antenna. The participating companies are trying to interest Congress in the plan, which is intended to free pay-TV companies from having to pay “retransmission consent” fees to local stations for carriage. The proposal is an industry solution that, unlike the DTV converter box coupon program, would not rely on a government subsidy.

Unless the DTV transition blows a fuse, I can’t see Congress going for the free pay-TV scheme. To do so, Washington would have to stand up to the lobbying might of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which oppose the plan. But if 2008 arrives and consumers can’t find converter boxes in stores, have problems installing them, or complain about DTV reception, Congress will hear about it. I am not endorsing DTV Doomsday scenarios at this point, but if chaos hits, lawmakers may be willing to explore any plan that frees them from blame.

Earlier:
Cheap converter boxes: Retailers not on board

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