CBS and Time Warner win; viewers lose in cable dispute

So the CBS-Time Warner food fight is over, and the losers are viewers who face ever-rising pay-TV bills. It won't change until we have to pay only for channels we want to watch.

So here's the final score: Time Warner Cable got some but not all of what it wanted. CBS got pretty much everything that it wanted.

And after a month of being denied access to CBS, Showtime and other popular channels, Time Warner subscribers got the certainty of even costlier monthly bills and the assurance that money-grubbing squabbles among multibillion-dollar media giants will continue.

Excuse me if I'm not exactly thrilled about this week's conclusion to the latest in a series of go-ahead-make-my-day confrontations between greedy corporations.

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Moreover, why aren't our elected officials hopping mad about these ongoing industry food fights and racing to pass legislation aimed at finally giving consumers a break from the endless cycle of rising pay-TV bills?

"We need regulators who are willing to stop powerful special interests, whether broadcasters or cable firms, that use consumers as pawns in their spats," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

"In the long run, we need better rules, including a la carte pricing, to help change the video marketplace," he said.

I've been pushing for years for a la carte pricing — paying only for the channels you want. More on that in a moment.

First, let's sample the bury-the-hatchet statements released by Time Warner Cable and CBS after they made the peace.

Glenn Britt, Time Warner's chief exec, said the company's hard-nosed bargaining stance was guided by wanting "to hold down costs and retain our ability to deliver a great video experience for our customers."

"While we certainly didn't get everything we wanted, ultimately we ended up in a much better place than when we started," he said.

Les Moonves, the head of CBS, said that the accord provides "fair compensation for CBS content" and the ability "to monetize our content going forward on all the new, developing platforms that are right now transforming the way people watch television."

Cutting through all the corporate doublespeak, Time Warner Cable is saying that its customers will have to pay more for CBS' channels, but maybe not quite as much as CBS wanted.

CBS is saying it's still getting a sweet deal, thank you very much, and will have no problem sticking it to Time Warner by also cutting deals to make its programming available via online services such as Hulu and Netflix.

The real kick in the teeth for consumers is that we'll have to go through this again and again, every time a programmer decides to use a popular channel as leverage to reach deeper into the pockets of captive pay-TV customers.

The heart of this blatant rip-off is the practice of bundling — selling a bunch of channels as a package to pay-TV companies and their subscribers. Take the example of Viacom.

A viewer might want Comedy Central just for "The Daily Show." Or maybe Nickelodeon for its kids' shows. Or maybe MTV or VH1 for whatever they air nowadays (I stopped watching when music videos went away).

But you can't get just the channel or channels you desire. You have to take everything Viacom sells, including CMT's country-flavored programming, Spike's macho offerings, assorted Nickelodeon spinoffs, such as Nick Jr. and Nicktoons, and Logo TV's gay-themed lineup.

This is how every major programmer does it. Maybe you want AMC for "The Walking Dead" or "Breaking Bad." But AMC Networks will also make you take WE tv and the Sundance Channel.

Fox is happy to offer its FXM movie channel, but you also have to receive FX and the National Geographic Channel.

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