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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

CBS is off the air for millions of Time Warner Cable customers. The two sides are battling over how much the TV network wants to charge Time Warner for access to its channels. Between a third to half of your cable bill pays for individual channels, everything from ESPN to SPIKE and Syfy, channels you may never watch.

NPR's Dan Bobkoff has been looking into the cable business, and he has this look back at the birth of the bundle.

DAN BOBKOFF, BYLINE: This is what it sounds like when negotiations between a cable company and a television network spill out into the open.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Time is running out, and Time Warner Cable is not listening.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: CBS is driving up the price you pay for TV.

BOBKOFF: CBS wants Time Warner to pay a lot more to carry it. Time Warner says CBS wants too much. But it's not a totally even fight. CBS shows have fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No "Under the Dome," no "Big Brother."

BOBKOFF: All Time Warner can do is talk vaguely about price.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Demanding an outrageous price increase to...

BOBKOFF: Exactly how much Time Warner pays CBS is confidential. And this right here is the foundation of the cable television business. CBS needs cable companies to carry its programming so it gets lots of eyeballs for its advertisers. Time Warner can't live without popular channels like CBS or its customers will flee. They're frenemies. They can't live without each other, but right now, it seems, they can't live with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Say no to Time Warner Cable...

BOBKOFF: You'd never see it listed on your monthly cable bill, but nearly every channel you get has a secret price. Industry analysts SNL Kagan estimates that, whether you watch it or not, six cents a month goes to the Hallmark Channel, 60 cents a month goes to CNN, and get ready...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOBKOFF: ...$5.54 each month for ESPN, the most expensive channel around. Needham & Company estimates that ESPN rakes in $7 billion from cable customers, even though many never even watch the channel. It wasn't always like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ESPN, everything worth seeing.

BOBKOFF: This is what ESPN's sounded like when it signed on the air for the first time in 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEE LEONARD: And it's going to be a big part of our future, the "SportsCenter" with George Grande.

STEVE EFFROS: This was a Wild West time in cable television. Nobody knew what programming was going to be.

BOBKOFF: Steve Effros is a cable industry consultant. In the '70s, he says, it was an open question that the special-interest channel like ESPN would make it.

EFFROS: Will ESPN get the money to be able to compete with ABC, NBC and CBS for whatever baseball games, right? Nobody knew.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOBKOFF: In its early days, ESPN actually paid cable providers just to get into your living room. At the time, most cable systems could only fit 20 channels, so they could be picky about what they offered. But then it's the '80s, people start to watch these upstart cable channels. That meant more advertising. And before long, it was the networks like ESPN that had the power.

EFFROS: They became a channel that was recognized. The cable operators then found themselves in a position where they had to carry it, as opposed to, you know, have the leverage not to carry it.

BOBKOFF: And it's at this moment when channels like ESPN started demanding big fees from cable providers. Which is why for a cable guy like Ben Hooks, this business got a whole lot better for the networks and a whole lot worse for him.

BEN HOOKS: It's really gone crazy, absolutely crazy.

BOBKOFF: Hooks runs Buford Media. It's a cable provider with about 7,000 customers in rural Texas. Over the years, he's watched programming go from its smallest expense to its biggest, with sports channels like ESPN leading the charge to higher prices. But he thinks the business is at a breaking point.

HOOKS: I think there is going to be a market correction.

BOBKOFF: Hooks' hands are tied. He wishes he could tell his customers how much each channel costs. But if he told them, he'd violate confidentiality agreements. And, he jokes, they'd come after him.

HOOKS: I'm told I wouldn't want to be around.

(LAUGHTER)

BOBKOFF: ESPN, as you might expect, has a different view of its pricing. Ed Durso is a vice president there. And he says the total cable package is still a good deal for cable subscribers.

ED DURSO: What you're buying is an array of services and products and choice through cable. And you get all of that, you know, for a price that we think is quite compelling, actually, in the entertainment world.

BOBKOFF: But soon, another network will follow the ESPN playbook. Fox Sports 1 premieres this month. SNL Kagan estimates it will get nearly 80 cents a subscriber on day one. If it's a hit, expect that fee to rise fast in the coming years, adding yet more to your monthly bill. Dan Bobkoff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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