Lies, Damned Lies, and Understatements

The cable industry is running scared in the face of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin demanding a vote certifying that the cable industry has met the 70/70 test.  This test gives the FCC greater regulatory authority once cable is available to seventy percent of American households and seventy percent of those households subscribe to cable.  This is clear from the way the cable industry has pulled out all stops to avoid the finding, even persuading Warren Communications News to discredit its own Television and Cable Factbook, claiming that there are technical reasons for regarding it as unreliable.

It’s worth quoting the remarks of the managing editor of Warren Communications News’ Television and Cable Factbook to Communications Daily (also owned by Warren) on the subject:

‘The figures from the Television and Cable Factbook aren’t well suited to determining whether the threshold has been met, said Managing Editor Michael Taliaferro.  Taliaferro said Factbook figures understate the number of homes passed by cable systems — and the number of subscribers — because not all operators  participate in its survey.  “More and operators are just not giving up” those numbers, he said.  “We could go with two dozen footnotes when we start to report this data.”  Cable operators participating in the Factbook survey said they passed 94.2 million homes and had 67.2 million subscribers.

‘The FCC official who asked him for the cumulative figure didn’t say how it would be used, Taliaferro said.  If he had known, he would have provided a list of caveats, he said.  “It would have been a very lengthy email,” he said.  Taliaferro said he did point out the shortcomings in a phone conversation with the FCC official but didn’t put it in writing because he wasn’t asked to.  “I had no idea what they were doing with it.”’

Taliaferro, who relies on cable industry data to put out the Factbook, clearly came under a lot of pressure from the industry to badmouth his own data, but even then he didn’t get the job done.  If the problem is understating number of households passed and number of subscribers because cable operators refuse to provide the data, as Taliaferro suggests, then Warren’s Television and Cable Factbook must understate the number of households passed and subscribers.  This means that the real numbers — the numbers we’d have if all the cable providers coughed up the data — have as a matter of mathematical certainty to be greater than 70% coverage and 70% subscription.  Taliaferro, attempting to please the cablecos, has in fact given evidence that the Warren figure of 71.4 percent of homes having gotten cable as of October 10, 2007 has to be an understatement of the reality.

The only way the Warren data could fail to support invoking the 70/70 rule would be if cable providers systematically over-reported the number of households covered and number of subscribers.  And they’d have to be crazy to do that, since they want to avoid regulation at all costs.  I know from personal experience that the cablecos lie to avoid regulation.  It was patent from data submitted by Comcast and Time Warner in connection with the Comcast-Time Warner-Adelphia transaction that Comcast tried to circumvent the 30% cable ownership cap by submitting year-old data for some affected DMAs while Time Warner submitted current data. (You can see where I called them out on this in my expert submission on MAP’s Petition to Deny.)

This is why Warren is so desperate to sow confusion about its own data.  The Nielsen and Kagan numbers (which are lower than the Warren numbers) are estimates.  The cablecos don’t share nearly as much proprietary data with Nielsen and Kagan as they do with Warren, which is regarded as a safe, cable-friendly trade press outlet.  When Warren shared the data with the FCC, the footnote they neglected to provide with it should have read: “Don’t use this data for regulatory purposes because it will make the people who gave it to us very cranky.”  Hence the attempt on Warren’s part to cover up the embarrassing bits like a stripper at a police raid — by misdirection.

It’s also significant that two Republican FCC Commissioners, Deborah Tate and Robert McDowell, have made a huge  deal out of this non-story by writing to Taliaferro that “We wanted to take this opportunity to ensure that at least these two Commissioners are indeed seeking the trustworthiness, truthfulness, and viability of the data in question.”  Either they don’t understand what the mathematical meaning of the understatement by cable operators is, or they’ve decided to play cableco sock-puppets.  I’m hoping for the former, but I’m betting on the latter, athough I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.

In addition to voting the 70/70 finding on a 3-2 with Chairman Martin and the two Democrats forming a majority for real regulation of the cable industry, Chairman Martin should put forward a regulation requiring that the cablecos provide detailed coverage and subscription data publicly to the FCC on an annual basis, certified by the CEOs of the cablecos under penalty of perjury.  If Tate and McDowell vote for a rule like that with real teeth to keep the cablecos honest and provide the necessary data to the American people, then they really are concerned with the accuracy of data.

If they don’t, we need to ask whose hand is up the puppets’ arses.

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