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Foul balls and foul cable service

Everybody's reporting today that major league baseball's Extra Innings package of out-of-market games Yankees_blue_jays_spring_ba will be available only on Direct TV's satellite service, after baseball financial boss Bob DuPuy's announcement Thursday that a consortium of cable systems had failed to match Direct TV's offer. But I suspect that the fat lady has not sung on this one yet. Note that DuPuy didn't say the cable operators offered less money than the $700 million put up by Direct TV; rather, he claimed that their offer was "not responsive" to some of the terms set by baseball. The argument is not about money but exactly which tier of cable programming the Extra Innings package would be placed -- the sort of arcane issue that neither viewers nor Congress, which has taken an interest in the deal, will ever understand or care about.

Personally, I don't see why baseball can't sell its product to whoever it wants under whatever conditions it chooses to set. Neither the Constitution nor the Bible grants mankind an inalienable right to see baseball games on cable. And it seems to me that Direct TV is not acting like a monopolist but a competitor, trying to acquire something that will make its service different -- and better -- than cable's. But Congress is always anxious to grandstand for its constituents at somebody else's expense, so I expect pressure on baseball to offer the games more widely. And baseball, threatened with losing its exemption from anti-trust laws, will probably buckle.

If Congress really cared about the consumer rights of TV viewers, it would pass a law preventing local governments from granting monopolies on cable service. No single policy in the history of television has been more destructive, simultaneously costing consumers untold millions of dollars in higher rates and lost service while restricting programming choice.

There's a move afoot in Florida to create competition in cable by easing the rules for telephone companies who want to offer cable service. (Herald reporter Jim Wyss has the details in a story today.) Of course, everybody's against the legislation -- the cable companies because competition would threaten the arrogant, slothful and avaricious way they do business, municipal governments because they'd lose the public-access channels that allow them to preen and prance on television. (I'd love to see the city of Miami take a vote of cable customers: Which would you prefer, to watch us on television or have your cable bill cut 40 percent? We'd have to redefine the term "landslide.")

But those objections are predictable. What's really irritating -- and shameful -- is the way some consumer groups are pitching in to preserve the cable monopoly on the grounds that the phone companies might not choose to offer cable service to every single household in Florida. These groups are so enchanted with the word "regulation" that they refuse to see that it's precisely government regulation that has made it possible for cable companies to cheat their customers all these years. Perhaps they should pay a visit to Nicaragua.

I spent five years in Managua, Nicaragua as the Herald's Central American bureau chief. Managua didn't grant an exclusive franchise to any cable company; anybody who wanted to could go into the cable business. Result: four companies competing for my business. Repair calls were always answered the same day, and usually within an hour or two, because dissatisfied customers could (and did) switch companies with a single phone call. It's hard to compare rates between the two countries (especially because the Managua companies weren't paying anything for programming, just swiping it off the satellite), but the prices were quite stable and even drifted downward a bit during the five years I lived there, rather than jumping each year as they do here. Despite being the second-poorest country in the hemisphere, Nicaragua could definitely teach us a thing or two about economics.

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