Calling for ESPN et al. to return cable fees during coronavirus pandemic is political grandstanding

Dan Wetzel
·4-min read

If you have basic cable, should you have to pay for ESPN, FS1 or any other sports-related channel during a period where there are no, or very few, live sports being broadcast?

Letitia James doesn’t think so. She happens to be the attorney general of New York, and this week, she sent a letter to the nation’s cable providers requesting that they “promptly and voluntarily provide relief to affected New York consumers from continued high cable television charges.”

James notes that sports networks — ESPN, FS1, YES, NFL, Big Ten and so on — all market themselves as a home for live events. While there is plenty of programming that emanates from studios or involves documentaries or movies, everything revolves around the games.

Yet there are no games.

“Consumers rightly do not understand why they should have to continue to pay the higher fees that are attributable to live sports,” James wrote. “Sports channels showing solely reruns and sports video game simulators, as is now the practice, is not what customers bargained for.”

While it is true that ESPN isn’t ESPN right now without the NBA playoffs or the MLB regular season, let alone shows debating the NBA playoffs and MLB regular season, this idea isn’t rooted in logic. It feels more like political showmanship.

First off, at least currently, the games are postponed, not canceled. If ESPN was forced to refund, via cable providers, the roughly $9 a month customers pay for its family of networks in April, does that mean it gets to charge double in August if a rescheduled NBA Finals are held then?

That would also qualify as not what customers bargained for … it would be more than they bargained for.

“At a time when so many New Yorkers have lost their jobs and are struggling, it is grossly unfair that cable and satellite television providers would continue to charge fees for services they are not even providing,” James wrote.

A production control room in Digital Center 2, a new 194,000 sq. ft  building on the ESPN campus in Bristol, Connecticut May 22, 2014 will be the new home of SportsCenter beginning June 2014.  The facility includes 5 broadcast studios, 6 production control rooms, 4 audio control rooms and 16 edit suites. REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY MEDIA)
With no live sports, ESPN has had to get creative with its programming, including running reruns of old games and moving up the 'The Last Dance,' the 10-part documentary series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. (REUTERS)

It is a time when New Yorkers are struggling. Lots of companies are struggling as well. Almost all are for the same reason — a global pandemic that is, obviously, out of their hands. When it comes to ESPN, it didn’t cancel the games. The NBA, MLB and others did.

In that vacuum, however, they’ve made a concerted and fair effort to provide quality content for their customers. ESPN’s broadcast of the NFL draft was a production and technological feat and was considered by many to be the most engaging draft perhaps ever. It delivered record ratings, which suggests that many New Yorkers were quite happy with the product ESPN was offering.

The network moved up a high-priced, 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan’s 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. It also delivered big ratings, no doubt many of them from New York. The network plucked through the Disney vault for family sports movies. It continues to produce SportsCenter and other news and opinion shows as best it can. Even in a different state of existence, it provides a needed distraction.

It certainly hasn’t gone dark or resorted to infomercials.

Meanwhile, Fox Sports has broadcast NASCAR’s iRacing Series to decent ratings, generally around one million viewers a race. Every channel has hyped the NFL’s free agency and draft, NBA draft and other sports news just like it always would. YES, the network dedicated to the New York Yankees, is showing old Yankees games, which aren’t a bad alternative to early season baseball.

The networks are trying. Should you get a refund on CNN or Fox News because their anchors are sometimes broadcasting from home, rather than a modern studio, thus decreasing the expected production value? What’s that worth, 10 percent off?

Look, blaming cable television is low-hanging fruit. No one wants to pay these bills in the best of times.

Where does this logically end, though?

Parks and playgrounds are closed in New York due to the coronavirus. Should homeowners be refunded the share of their local property taxes that fund those public spaces? Wouldn’t it be grossly unfair to continue to charge them for something that, even worse than a cable channel, is completely off limits even by penalty of arrest?

And can New Yorkers expect the same amount of prosecutions from the attorney general’s office during these months? Or will that number be lower since the coronavirus has closed or limited the hours or types of business conducted at so many courts?

This has been bad for everyone. Life isn’t normal. Neither is business. Recognizing good faith efforts by all types of people and all kinds of businesses (small and, yes, even big) is a proper path right now.

We’re all in this together. Even the cable guy.

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