Satellite broadcaster DirecTV and Viacom, owner of MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, are locked in a contentious battle over retransmission fees. The short version is that both firms are wrangling over how much DirecTV should pay to broadcast Viacom's bundle of channels. As the New York Times reports, DirecTV doesn't have the option to select the channels it wants - instead, it has to buy them in bulk from Viacom.
Rather than settle this quietly in the board room, the two firms are now duking it out in public. Viacom has asked fans of its shows (like the Jersey Shore) to lodge complaints with DirecTV. DirecTV has countered by claiming extortion. Indeed, the satellite firm has made a rather startling claim:
"Programmers like Viacom typically won't allow anyone to buy their channels individually, but we hope to change that," DirecTV said in its statement on Tuesday morning. "We currently pay them hundreds of millions of dollars every year already, and if Viacom thinks their networks are worth a billion more, then you have to be able to select what's most important in your own living room. It's your money, so you should be able to decide."
Of course, this isn't true. DirecTV doesn't give you that much of a choice of what to watch - they too bundle their programming into various packages. You don't get an "ala carte" menu based on individual programs so it's a stretch to claim that that's what DirecTV is really fighting for.
The truth is, ala carte TV is still a long way off. None of business interests required to deliver ala carte have an incentive to do so. For all the complaints about high programming prices, tv providers like DirecTV need to group channels together to sustain high package prices. There was some hope that Netflix and other streaming video services would put so much competitive pressure on cable networks that they'd be forced to embrace the model to retain customers, but few people actually "cut the cord" in favor of those streaming options. Even if they did flee their pay TV subscriptions en-masse in favor of web-delivered alternatives, the cable firms would just as quickly jack the price of your broadband connection than offer you a cheaper selection of channels.
There's a fervent belief in some quarters of the tech media that an Apple TV (an "iTV" - not the existing set top box) will come along and upend the TV business model, but early reports indicate that Apple has hit a wall with content owners who don't want to alienate their existing distribution partners. Even with their towering pile of cash, Apple can't turn itself into a "virtual cable company" overnight.
So no matter who wins in the Viacom-DirecTV dust-up, rest assured, it won't be you.