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Originally published January 5, 2010 at 3:51 PM | Page modified January 6, 2010 at 9:40 AM

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The Democracy Papers

Public has big stake in Fox/Time Warner deal

The dispute between Fox TV owner News Corp. and Time Warner Cable about rebroadcasting fees came dangerously close to restricting public access to some cable channels. That cannot be allowed.

THE dispute between Fox Broadcasting owner News Corp. and Time Warner Cable about rebroadcasting fees came dangerously close to restricting public access to some cable channels.

The two sides settled their differences but the public will not know how — or how much — it will increase their cable bills because the two sides will not disclose details. Fox wanted about a dollar for each cable subscriber per month, a figure that could have set a precedent for content providers looking for more money from cable and satellite operators.

Unsettling for viewers was Time Warner's threat to pull Fox programming on the eve of college bowls and National Football League games. It illustrates cable's hubris and the public's vulnerability.

Cable companies should not be able to block content from people who pay for Internet and TV. This is the exponential outgrowth of unchecked media consolidation: zero transparency and more and more standoffs between programmers and distributors.

The Federal Communications Commission appropriately cautioned both sides to avoid dragging the public into the dispute. But the FCC's call for restraint should go further. Due diligence is required to prevent unreasonable media consolidation or efforts to restrict content.

This is a pivotal time. ABC/Disney is gearing up for a fight about retransmission fees. Comcast is seeking regulatory approval to merge with NBC Universal, a deal that would marry the nation's largest cable and broadband Internet service provider with a television network, resulting in a combined powerhouse in control of one in five hours of television content.

A coalition of public-interest groups is calling for federal antitrust probes into Comcast, Time Warner and other cable-service providers who use subscription-based fees to control content.

We support their call. Media consolidation threatens consumers with a loss of choice and access to diverse programming.

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