Comcastic? Fans smell a political rat in moving MSNBC
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Hours before a televised presidential debate last December in Portland, Ore., Comcast moved the liberal-leaning MSNBC from basic cable to digital premium. Viewer fury was immediate. Comcast was inundated with complaints from thousands of cable subscribers who would not have been able to switch to the higher-priced package to see the debate on time even if they had wanted to.
In an overwhelmingly liberal town, having to pay a premium to watch MSNBC's Keith Olbermann dismantle the Bush administration every night while Fox and CNN remain part of the basic cable package was infuriating.
Many Oregonians considered the move an attempt to marginalize outspoken liberal voices like Mr. Olbermann's by making it more expensive to get access to them.
MSNBC was replaced by the Weather Channel. Offering no apologies, Comcast pointed to the intricacies of offering more high-definition channels in the market to justify MSNBC's bump to the next level.
It was entirely Comcast's decision to move MSNBC. NBC Universal, MSNBC's parent company, told Comcast it was unhappy with the decision to move its cable news affiliate.
Earlier this week, Pittsburgh cable subscribers attempted to tune in to MSNBC only to find the Golf Channel sitting where "Morning Joe" and "Hardball with Chris Matthews" used to be aired.
What happened last year in Portland and other cities is now happening in Western Pennsylvania. Viewers are just as angry. More than a dozen channels were bumped, but only MSNBC, TruTV, Oxygen and the Hallmark Channel were kicked from standard to digital premium.
On local talk radio, the suspicion is that Comcast is engaging in a back-door rate increase that disproportionately affects Democrats during an important election year. Because MSNBC caters to liberal voices in ways that Fox and CNN don't, moving it to a more expensive tier is suspect.
The reasons for moving MSNBC may be far more mundane than liberal-bashing conspiracy theories allow. Decisions for doing so also may vary according to local programming carriage agreements. These deals are complex, so cable companies aren't always forthcoming about them.
Still, there are a lot of unhappy subscribers who want their MSNBC. If a cable subscriber is truly mad enough, complaining to Comcast, moving to a competitor, pulling the plug or subscribing to the paper may be the way to go.
First Published July 19, 2008 12:00 am