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Interested observers on all sides of the contentious debate over Aereo have focused a great deal on the implications for cloud computing if the Supreme Court rules against Aereo. The Court hears oral argument next week, and the cloud computing issue is sure to make an appearance.

Several parties that filed amicus briefs in the case weighed in on the issue. The Center for Democracy & Technology, for example, filed abrief arguing that a ruling against Aereo would hinder the development of cloud computing. Thirty-six Intellectual Property and Copyright Law Professors also filed a brief arguing this point. On the other hand, the United States—represented by the Solicitor General—devoted a section of its amicus brief in support of copyright owners’ argument that the Court could rule against Aereo without undermining cloud computing.

Our organizations, the International Center for Law and Economics and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, filed an amicus brief in the case in support of the Petitioners (as did many other policy groups, academics, and trade associations). In our brief we applied the consumer welfare framework to the question whether allowing Aereo’s business practice would increase the societal benefits that copyright law seeks to advance. We argued that holding Aereo liable for copyright infringement was well within the letter and spirit of the Copyright Act of 1976. In particular, we argued that Aereo’s model is less a disruptive innovation than a technical work-around taking advantage of the Second Circuit’s overbroad reading of the law in the Cablevision case.

Although our brief didn’t directly address cloud computing writ large, we did articulate a crucial distinction between Aereo and other cloud computing providers. Under our reasoning, the Court could rule against Aereo—as it should—without destroying cloud computing—as it should not.

Background

By way of background, at the center of the legal debate is what it means to “perform [a] copyrighted work publicly.” Aereo argues that because only one individual subscriber is “capable of receiving” each transmission its service delivers, its performances are private, not public. The Copyright Act gives copyright owners the exclusive right to publicly perform their works, but not the right to perform them privately. Therefore, Aereo contends, its service doesn’t infringe upon copyright owners’ exclusive rights.

We disagree. As our brief explains, Aereo’s argument ignores Congress’ decision in the Copyright Act of 1976 to expressly define the transmission of a television broadcast “by means of any device or process” to the public as a public performance, “whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance … receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.” Aereo has built an elaborate system for distributing live high-def broadcast television content to subscribers for a monthly fee—without obtaining permission from, or paying royalties to, the copyright owners in the audiovisual works aired by broadcasters.

Although the Copyright Act’s text is less than artful, Congress plainly wrote it so as to encompass businesses that sell consumers access to live television broadcasts, whether using traditional means—such as coaxial cable lines—or some high-tech system that lawmakers couldn’t foresee in 1976.

What does this case mean for cloud computing? To answer this question, it’s worth dividing the discussion into two parts: one addressing cloud providers that don’t sell their users licenses to copyrighted works, and the other addressing cloud providers that do. Dropbox and Mozy fit in the first category; Amazon and iTunes fit in the second.

A Ruling Against Aereo Won’t Destroy Cloud Computing Services like Dropbox

According to the 36 Intellectual Property and Copyright Law Professors, a loss for Aereo would be bad news for cloud storage providers such as Dropbox:

If any service making multiple transmissions of the same underlying copyrighted audiovisual work is publicly performing that work, then the distinction between video-on-demand services and online storage services would vanish, and all such services would henceforth face infringement liability. Thus, if two Dropbox users independently streamed “We, the Juries,” then under Petitioners’ theory, those two transmissions would be aggregated together, making them collectively “to the public.” Under Petitioners’ theory of this case—direct infringement by public performance—that would be game, set, and match against Dropbox.

This sounds like bad news for the cloud. Fortunately, however, Dropbox has little to fear from an Aereo defeat, even if the professors are right to worry about an overbroad public performance right (more on this below). The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) grants online service providers—including cloud hosting services such as Dropbox—a safe harbor from copyright infringement liability for unwittingly storing infringing files uploaded by their users. In exchange for this immunity, service providers must comply with the DMCA’snotice and takedown system and adopt a policy to terminate repeat-infringing users, among other duties.

Although 17 U.S.C. § 512(c) refers only to infringement “by reason of … storage” directed by a user, courts have consistently interpreted this language to “encompass[] the access-facilitating processes that automatically occur when a user uploads” a file to a cloud hosting service. Whether YouTube streams an infringing video once or 1,000,000 times, therefore, it retains its DMCA immunity so long as it complies with the safe harbor’s requirements. So even if Aereo loses, and every DropBox user who streams “We, the Juries” is receiving a public performance, DropBox will still be safe from copyright infringement liability in the same way as YouTube, Vimeo, DailyMotion, and countless other services are safe today.

An Aereo Defeat Won’t Kill Cloud Computing Services like Amazon and Google

As for cloud computing providers that provide copyrighted content, the legal analysis is admittedly trickier. These providers, such as Google and Amazon, contract with copyright holders to sell their users licenses to copyrighted works. Some providers offer a subscription to streaming content, for which the provider has typically secured public performance licenses from the copyright owners. Cloud providers also sell digital copies of copyrighted works—that is, non-transferable lifetime licenses—for which the provider has generally obtained reproduction and distribution licenses, but not public performance rights.

But, as copyright law guru Devlin Hartline argues, determining if a performance is public or private turns on whether the cloud provider’s “volitional conduct [is] sufficient such that it directly causes the transmission.” When a user streams her own licensed content from a cloud service, it remains a private performance because the cloud service took no willful steps to facilitate the playback of copyrighted material. (The same is true for Dropbox-like services, as well.) Aereo, conversely, “crosse[s] the line from being a passive conduit to being an active participant because it supplies the very content that is available using its service.”

Neither Google’s nor Amazon’s business models much resemble Aereo’s, which entails transmitting content for which the company has secured no copyright licenses—either for itself or for its users. And to the extent that these services do supply the content being transmitted (as Spotify or Google Play All Access do, for example), they secure the appropriate public performance right to do so. Indeed, critics who have focused on cloud computing fail to appreciate how the Copyright Act distinguishes between infringing technologies such as Aereo and lawful uses of the cloud to store, share, and transmit copyrighted works.

For instance, as CDT notes:

[S]everal companies (including Google and Amazon) have launched personal music locker services, allowing individuals to upload their personal music collections “to the cloud” and enabling them to transmit that music back to their own computers, phones, and tablets when, where, and how they find most convenient.

And other critics of broadcasters’ legal position have made similar arguments, claiming that the Court cannot reach a holding that simultaneously bars Aereo while allowing cloud storage:

[I]f Aereo is publicly performing when you store a unique copy of the nightly news online and watch it later, then why aren’t cloud services publicly performing if they host your (lawful) unique mp3 of the latest hit single and stream it to you later?… The problem with this rationale is that it applies with equal force to cloud storage like Dropbox, SkyDrive, iCloud, and Google Drive. If multiple people store their own, unique, lawfully acquired copy of the latest hit single in the cloud, and then play it to themselves over the Internet, that too sounds like the broadcasters’ version of a public performance. The anti-Aereo rationale doesn’t distinguish between Aereo and the cloud.

The Ability to Contract is Key

These arguments miss the important concept of privity. A copyright holder who does not wish to license the exclusive rights in her content cannot be forced to do so (unless the content is subject to a compulsory license). If a copyright holder prefers its users not upload their licensed videos to the cloud and later stream them for personal use, the owner can include such a prohibition in its licenses. This may affect users’ willingness to pay for such encumbered content—but this is private ordering in action, with copyright holders and licensees bargaining over control over copyrighted works, a core purpose of the Copyright Act.

When a copyright holder wishes to license content to a cloud provider or user, the parties can bargain over whether users may stream their content from the cloud. These deals can evolve over time in response to new technology and changing consumer demand. This happens all the time—as in therecent deal between Dish and Disney over the Hopper DVR, wherein Dish agreed that Hopper would automatically excise the commercials accompanying ABC content only after three days elapse after each show airs.

But Aereo forecloses the possibility of such negotiation, making all over-the-air content available online to subscribers absent any agreement with the underlying copyright owners of such programs. Aereo is thus distinct from other cloud services that supply content to their users, as the latter have permission to license their content.

Of course, broadcasters make their programming freely available over the airwaves, without any express agreement with viewers. But this doesn’t mean broadcasters lose their legal right to restrict how third parties distribute and monetize their content. While consumers can record and watch such broadcasts at their leisure, they can’t record programs and then sell the rights to the content, for example, simply replicating the broadcast. The fact that copyright holders have entered into licenses to “cloud-ify” content with dedicated over-the-top apps and Hulu clearly suggests that the over-the-air “license” is limited. And because Aereo refuses to deal with the broadcasters, there’s no possibility of a negotiated agreement between Aereo and the content owners, either. The unique combination of broadcast content and an unlicensed distributor differentiates the situation in Aereo from typical cloud computing.

If broadcasters can’t rely on copyright law to protect them from companies like Aereo that simply repackage over-the-air content, they may well shift all of their content to cable subscriptions instead of giving a free option to consumers. That’s bad news for folks who access free television—regardless of the efficiency of traditional broadcasting, or lack thereof.

The Cablevision Decision Doesn’t Require a Holding for Aereo

Commentators argue that overruling the Second Circuit in Aereo necessarily entails overruling the Second Circuit’s Cablevision holding—and with it that ruling’s fair use protections for DVRs and other cloud computing functionality. We disagree, however. Rather, regardless of whether Cablevision was correctly decided, its application to Aereo is improper.

In Cablevision, the individual cable subscribers to whom Cablevision transmitted copies of plaintiff Cartoon Network’s television programming were already paying for lawful access to it. Cartoon Network voluntarily agreed to license its copyrighted works to Cablevision and, in turn, to each Cablevision subscriber whose cable package included the Cartoon Network channel.

The dispute in Cablevision thus involved a copyright holder and a licensee with a preexisting contractual relationship; the parties simply disagreed on the terms by which Cablevision was permitted to transmit Cartoon Network’s content. But even after the decision, Cartoon Network remained (and remains) free to terminate or renegotiate its licensing agreement with Cablevision.

Again, this dynamic of voluntary exchange mitigates Cablevision’s impact on the market for television programming, as copyright holders and cable companies settle on a new equilibrium. But unlike the cable company in Cablevision, Aereo has neither sought nor received permission from any holders of copyrights in broadcast television programming before retransmitting their works to paying subscribers.

Even if it is correct that Aereo itself isn’t engaging in public performance of copyrighted work, it remains the case that its subscribers haven’t obtained the right to use Aereo’s services, either. But one party or the other must obtain this right or else establish that it’s a fair use.

Fair Use Won’t Save Aereo

The only way legitimately to rule in Aereo’s favor would be to decide that Aereo’s retransmission of broadcast content is a fair use. But as Cablevision’s own amicus brief in Aereo (supporting Aereo) argues, fair use rights don’t cover Aereo’s non-transformative retransmission of broadcast content. Cloud computing providers, on the other hand, offer services that enable distinct functionality independent of the mere retransmission of copyrighted content:

Aereo is functionally identical to a cable system. It captures over-the-air broadcast signals and retransmits them for subscribers to watch. Aereo thus is not meaningfully different from services that have long been required to pay royalties. That fact sharply distinguishes Aereo from cloud technologies like remote-storage services and remote DVRs.

* * *

Aereo is not in the business of transmitting recorded content from individual hard-drive copies to subscribers. Rather, it is in the business of retransmitting broadcast television to subscribers.

* * *

Aereo…is not relying on its separate hard-drive copies merely to justify the lawfulness of its pause, rewind, and record functions. It is relying on those copies to justify the entire television retransmission service. It is doing so even in the many cases where subscribers are not even using the pause, rewind, or record functions but are merely watching television live.

It may be that the DVR-like functions that Aereo provides are protected, but that doesn’t mean that it can retransmit copyrighted content without a license. If, like cable companies, it obtained such a license, it might be able to justify its other functionality (and negotiate license terms with broadcasters to reflect the value to each of such functionality). But that is a fundamentally different case. Similarly, if users were able to purchase licenses to broadcast content, Aereo’s additional functionality might also be protected (with the license terms between users and broadcasters reflecting the value to each). But, again, that is a fundamentally different case. Cloud computing services don’t create these problems, and thus need not be implicated by a proper reading of the Copyright Act and a ruling against Aereo.

Conclusion

One of the main purposes of copyright law is to secure for content creators the right to market their work. To allow services like Aereo undermines that ability and the incentives to create content in the first place. But, as we have shown, there is no reason to think a ruling against Aereo will destroy cloud computing.

I have a new article on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger in the latest edition of the CPI Antitrust Chronicle, which includes several other articles on the merger, as well.

In a recent essay, Allen Grunes & Maurice Stucke (who also have an essay in the CPI issue) pose a thought experiment: If Comcast can acquire TWC, what’s to stop it acquiring all cable companies? The authors’ assertion is that the arguments being put forward to support the merger contain no “limiting principle,” and that the same arguments, if accepted here, would unjustifiably permit further consolidation. But there is a limiting principle: competitive harm. Size doesn’t matter, as courts and economists have repeatedly pointed out.

The article explains why the merger doesn’t give rise to any plausible theory of anticompetitive harm under modern antitrust analysis. Instead, arguments against the merger amount to little more than the usual “big-is-bad” naysaying.

In summary, I make the following points:

Horizontal Concerns

The absence of any reduction in competition should end the inquiry into any potentially anticompetitive effects in consumer markets resulting from the horizontal aspects of the transaction.

  • It’s well understood at this point that Comcast and TWC don’t compete directly for subscribers in any relevant market; in terms of concentration and horizontal effects, the transaction will neither reduce competition nor restrict consumer choice.
  • Even if Comcast were a true monopolist provider of broadband service in certain geographic markets, the DOJ would have to show that the merger would be substantially likely to lessen competition—a difficult showing to make where Comcast and TWC are neither actual nor potential competitors in any of these markets.
  • Whatever market power Comcast may currently possess, the proposed merger simply does nothing to increase it, nor to facilitate its exercise.

Comcast doesn’t currently have substantial bargaining power in its dealings with content providers, and the merger won’t change that. The claim that the combined entity will gain bargaining leverage against content providers from the merger, resulting in lower content prices to programmers, fails for similar reasons.

  • After the transaction, Comcast will serve fewer than 30 percent of total MVPD subscribers in the United States. This share is insufficient to give Comcast market power over sellers of video programming.
  • The FCC has tried to impose a 30 percent cable ownership cap, and twice it has been rejected by the courts. The D.C. Circuit concluded more than a decade ago—in far less competitive conditions than exist today—that the evidence didn’t justify a horizontal ownership limit lower than 60% on the basis of buyer power.
  • The recent exponential growth in OVDs like Google, Netflix, Amazon and Apple gives content providers even more ways to distribute their programming.
  • In fact, greater concentration among cable operators has coincided with an enormous increase in output and quality of video programming
  • Moreover, because the merger doesn’t alter the competitive make-up of any relevant consumer market, Comcast will have no greater ability to threaten to withhold carriage of content in order to extract better terms.
  • Finally, programmers with valuable content have significant bargaining power and have been able to extract the prices to prove it. None of that will change post-merger.

Vertical Concerns

The merger won’t give Comcast the ability (or the incentive) to foreclose competition from other content providers for its NBCUniversal content.

  • Because the merger would represent only 30 percent of the national market (for MVPD services), 70 percent of the market is still available for content distribution.
  • But even this significantly overstates the extent of possible foreclosure. OVD providers increasingly vie for the same content as cable (and satellite).
  • In the past when regulators have considered foreclosure effects for localized content (regional sports networks, primarily)—for example, in the 2005 Adelphia/Comcast/TWC deal, under far less competitive conditions—the FTC found no substantial threat of anticompetitive harm. And while the FCC did identify a potential risk of harm in its review of the Adelphia deal, its solution was to impose arbitration requirements for access to this programming—which are already part of the NBCUniversal deal conditions and which will be extended to the new territory and new programming from TWC.

The argument that the merger will increase Comcast’s incentive and ability to impair access to its users by online video competitors or other edge providers is similarly without merit.

  • Fundamentally, Comcast benefits from providing its users access to edge providers, and it would harm itself if it were to constrain access to these providers.
  • Foreclosure effects would be limited, even if they did arise. On a national level, the combined firm would have only about 40 percent of broadband customers, at most (and considerably less if wireless broadband is included in the market).
  • This leaves at least 60 percent—and quite possibly far more—of customers available to purchase content and support edge providers reaching minimum viable scale, even if Comcast were to attempt to foreclose access.

Some have also argued that because Comcast has a monopoly on access to its customers, transit providers are beholden to it, giving it the ability to degrade or simply block content from companies like Netflix. But these arguments misunderstand the market.

  • The transit market through which edge providers bring their content into the Comcast network is highly competitive. Edge providers can access Comcast’s network through multiple channels, undermining Comcast’s ability to deny access or degrade service to such providers.
  • The transit market is also almost entirely populated by big players engaged in repeat interactions and, despite a large number of transactions over the years, marked by a trivial number of disputes.
  • The recent Comcast/Netflix agreement demonstrates that the sophisticated commercial entities in this market are capable of resolving conflicts—conflicts that appear to affect only the distribution of profits among contracting parties but not raise anticompetitive concerns.
  • If Netflix does end up paying more to access Comcast’s network over time, it won’t be because of market power or this merger. Rather, it’s an indication of the evolving market and the increasing popularity of OTT providers.
  • The Comcast/Netflix deal has procompetitive justifications, as well. Charging Netflix allows Comcast to better distinguish between the high-usage Netflix customers (two percent of Netflix users account for 20 percent of all broadband traffic) and everyone else. This should lower cable bills on average, improve incentives for users, and lead to more efficient infrastructure investments by both Comcast and Netflix.

Critics have also alleged that the vertically integrated Comcast may withhold its own content from competing MVPDs or OVDs, or deny carriage to unaffiliated programming. In theory, by denying competitors or potential competitors access to popular programming, a vertically integrated MVPD might gain a competitive advantage over its rivals. Similarly, an MVPD that owns cable channels may refuse to carry at least some unaffiliated content to benefit its own channels. But these claims also fall flat.

  • Once again, these issue are not transaction specific.
  • But, regardless, Comcast will not be able to engage in successful foreclosure strategies following the transaction.
  • The merger has no effect on Comcast’s share of national programming. And while it will have a larger share of national distribution post-merger, a 30 percent market share is nonetheless insufficient to confer buyer power in today’s highly competitive MVPD market.
  • Moreover, the programming market is highly dynamic and competitive, and Comcast’s affiliated programming networks face significant competition.
  • Comcast already has no ownership interest in the overwhelming majority of content it distributes. This won’t measurably change post-transaction.

Procompetitive Justifications

While the proposed transaction doesn’t give rise to plausible anticompetitive harms, it should bring well-understood pro-competitive benefits. Most notably:

  • The deal will bring significant scale efficiencies in a marketplace that requires large, fixed-cost investments in network infrastructure and technology.
  • And bringing a more vertical structure to TWC will likely be beneficial, as well. Vertical integration can increase efficiency, and the elimination of double marginalization often leads to lower prices for consumers.

Let’s be clear about the baseline here. Remember all those years ago when Netflix was a mail-order DVD company? Before either Netflix or Comcast even considered using the internet to distribute Netflix’s video content, Comcast invested in the technology and infrastructure that ultimately enabled the Netflix of today. It did so at enormous cost (tens of billions of dollars over the last 20 years) and risk. Absent broadband we’d still be waiting for our Netflix DVDs to be delivered by snail mail, and Netflix would still be spending three-quarters of a billion dollars a year on shipping.

The ability to realize returns—including returns from scale—is essential to incentivizing continued network and other quality investments. The cable industry today operates with a small positive annual return on invested capital (“ROIC”) but it has had cumulative negative ROIC over the entirety of the last decade. In fact, on invested capital of $127 billion between 2000 and 2009, cable has seen economic profits of negative $62 billion and a weighted average ROIC of negative 5 percent. Meanwhile Comcast’s stock has significantly underperformed the S&P 500 over the same period and only outperformed the S&P over the last two years.

Comcast is far from being a rapacious and endlessly profitable monopolist. This merger should help it (and TWC) improve its cable and broadband services, not harm consumers.

No matter how many times Al Franken and Susan Crawford say it, neither the broadband market nor the MVPD market is imperiled by vertical or horizontal integration. The proposed merger won’t create cognizable antitrust harms. Comcast may get bigger, but that simply isn’t enough to thwart the merger.

By Geoffrey Manne & Berin Szoka

As Democrats insist that income taxes on the 1% must go up in the name of fairness, one Democratic Senator wants to make sure that the 1% of heaviest Internet users pay the same price as the rest of us. It’s ironic how confused social justice gets when the Internet’s involved.

Senator Ron Wyden is beloved by defenders of Internet freedom, most notably for blocking the Protect IP bill—sister to the more infamous SOPA—in the Senate. He’s widely celebrated as one of the most tech-savvy members of Congress. But his latest bill, the “Data Cap Integrity Act,” is a bizarre, reverse-Robin Hood form of price control for broadband. It should offend those who defend Internet freedom just as much as SOPA did.

Wyden worries that “data caps” will discourage Internet use and allow “Internet providers to extract monopoly rents,” quoting a New York Times editorial from July that stirred up a tempest in a teapot. But his fears are straw men, based on four false premises.

First, US ISPs aren’t “capping” anyone’s broadband; they’re experimenting with usage-based pricing—service tiers. If you want more than the basic tier, your usage isn’t capped: you can always pay more for more bandwidth. But few users will actually exceed that basic tier. For example, Comcast’s basic tier, 300 GB/month, is so generous that 98.5% of users will not exceed it. That’s enough for 130 hours of HD video each month (two full-length movies a day) or between 300 and 1000 hours of standard (compressed) video streaming. Continue Reading…

Thomas Hazlett and I have posted The Law and Economics of Network Neutrality:

The Federal Communications Commission’s Network Neutrality Order regulates how broadband networks explain their services to customers, mandates that subscribers be permitted to deploy whatever computers, mobile devices, or applications they like for use with the network access service they purchase, imposes a prohibition upon unreasonable discrimination in network management such that Internet Service Provider efforts to maintain service quality (e.g. mitigation congestion) or to price and package their services do not burden rival applications.

This paper offers legal and economic critique of the new Network Neutrality policy and particularly the no blocking and no discrimination rules. While we argue the FCC‘s rules are likely to be declared beyond the scope of the agency‘s charter, we focus upon the economic impact of net neutrality regulations. It is beyond paradoxical that the FCC argues that it is imposing new regulations so as to preserve the Internet‘s current economic structure; that structure has developed in an unregulated environment where firms are free to experiment with business models – and vertical integration – at will. We demonstrate that Network Neutrality goes far further than existing law, categorically prohibiting various forms of economic integration in a manner equivalent to antitrust’s per se rule, properly reserved for conduct that is so likely to cause competitive harm that the marginal benefit of a fact-intensive analysis cannot be justified. Economic analysis demonstrates that Network Neutrality cannot be justified upon consumer welfare grounds. Further, the Commission‘s attempt to justify its new policy simply ignores compelling evidence that “open access” regulations have distorted broadband build-out in the United States, visibly reducing subscriber growth when imposed and visibly increasing subscriber growth when repealed. On the other, the FCC manages to cite just one study – not of the broadband market – to support its claims of widespread foreclosure threats. This empirical study, upon closer scrutiny than the Commission appears to have given it, actually shows no evidence of anti-competitive foreclosure. This fatal analytical flaw constitutes a smoking gun in the FCC‘s economic analysis of net neutrality.

Read the whole thing.  Under review at a law review near you …

Larry Downes (who, like me, is a senior fellow at TechFreedom and a contributor to the excellent book, The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet) and I taped an episode of Jim Glassman’s talking head show, Ideas in Action, a couple months ago, and it is airing this week on PBS stations around the country.  Except in Portland, where I live.  But have no fear–because the Internet remains sufficiently unregulated, you can get it right here.  The topic is “The Next Digital Decade: How Will the Internet Change by 2020?”  It’s a narrow topic.  In the 27 minutes allotted, we manage to cover telecom regulation, antitrust, net neutrality, privacy, IP, standards, public choice theory, culture, political repression, technological innovation and a few more topics for good measure.  Not to spoil the ending, but asked at the end what we thought the biggest danger to the Internet is in the coming decade, I answered errant antitrust enforcement (when the only tool you have is a hammer . . .); Larry answered privacy.  Enjoy.

I was forced to watch my first episode of “Two and a Half Men” last week.  Family members drugged me unconscious and then bound and gagged me, locked my head in the direction of the television and taped my eyelids open. 

The most horrible moment came when I realized that this was neither satire nor science fiction but a real, top-rated sit-com.  Also, I wasn’t sure about the math.  Who was the “half”?  Shouldn’t it be, say, “One and a quarter men”? 

It turns out that Bud Fox (“Newsflash: I am special, and I will never be one of you”) has misbehaved (or, perhaps, is auditioning to be the next dictator of Libya) and he was canned. The show was then canceled (apparently nobody was interested in “.75 men”).

I will now turn to the interesting part — the economics.

According to the WSJ, the producer (WB) will lose significant revenues from sale and syndication of the show, but the network will lose little or nothing.  CBS will make plenty of money showing reruns (will the audience even notice?).  Also, an analyst told the WSJ that CBS could make more money by replacing the show with one it produces itself rather than paying the high fees to WB (again, will the audience notice?).

This suggests that only producers and not networks make money from hit shows. So why don’t networks show any crap they can come up with on their own, instead of the crap they buy from production companies?  Or, in other words, how do networks make their money apart from production?  Is there enough demand for television shows now that producers are able to suck out all of the profits?

Also, it looks like Charlie Sheen was underpaid, since it seems the show couldn’t go on without him. In other words, two and a half minus one = zero

Jon Baker (FCC, American University) has posted an article summarizing the FCC’s analysis of the Comcast-NBCU merger.  Here is the abstract.

The FCC’s analysis of the Comcast-NBCU transaction fills a gap in the contemporary treatment of vertical mergers by providing a roadmap for courts and litigants addressing the possibility of anticompetitive exclusion. The FCC identified the factors any judicial or administrative tribunal would likely consider today in analyzing whether a vertical merger would lead to anticompetitive input or customer foreclosure, and a range of economic methods potentially relevant to applying that template to the facts of a transaction. Notwithstanding the difference between administrative adjudication under a public interest standard and judicial decision-making under the Clayton Act, the legal framework and economic studies the Commission employed promise to influence the approach that antitrust tribunals will now take in evaluating vertical mergers.

Its well worth reading and provides a good summary of the FCC’s analysis of the transaction (which is also worth reading in its entirety).

As we’ve highlighted, however, notwithstanding the fact that the FCC’s general framework for economic analysis of the merger was consistent with modern antitrust analysis (its hard to comment on anything but the general framework of economic analysis without delving deeply into the details, which I have not done yet), its tough to swallow the Comcast-NBCU Order as a “roadmap” or model given the long list of non-merger specific conditions imposed by the Commission (see here for a list).  The breadth of the conditions tends to undermine the claims that FCC merger review process, or components of it, should be exported.  The Joint Concurrence of Commissioners McDowell and Baker notes a similar objection:

The Commission’s approach to merger reviews has become excessively coercive and lengthy. This transaction is only the most recent example of several problematic FCC merger proceedings that have set a trend toward more lengthy and highly regulatory review processes that may discourage future transactions and job-creating investment.

In this instance, our review exceeded its limited statutory bounds. Many of the conditions in the Memorandum Opinion and Order (Order) and commitments outlined in separate letter agreements were agreed to by the parties. The resulting Order is a wide-ranging regulatory exercise notable for its “voluntary” conditions that are not merger specific. The same is true for the separate “voluntary” commitments outlined in Comcast’s letter of agreement dated January 17, 2011. While many of these commitments may serve as laudable examples of good corporate citizenship, most are not even arguably related to the underlying transaction. In short, the Order goes too far.

Jonathan Adler and Orin Kerr chime in over at VC to make the point that MSNBC’s rules against contributions from television personalities is pointless, or perhaps counterproductive.  Here’s Adler:

I agree with Orin that strict application of rules against political activity by journalists to opinionated commentators and hosts is silly.  No one believes these figures are neutral or objective journalists.  They’re not reporters; they are commentators and entertainers.  They have strong — often quite partisan — political views, and that’s part of their appeal.  Whether or not Olbermann (or Hannity) gives a dime to a political campaign, we all know which candidates and causes they support.

And here’s Professor Kerr:

I find this exceedingly silly. Keith Olbermann is not shy about his personal views, and no one who has watched him has any doubt as to who he supports. Why he should be suspended for donating money to the candidates he supports is a mystery to me.

There appears to be some debate over whether Olbermann’s conduct violated provisions in his contract.  Assuming Olbermann did violate the contractual obligation to seek permission before donating, that seems like a pretty good reason to suspend someone.  I doubt that either Jonathan or Orin mean that flouting contractual obligations is a silly or exceedingly silly or mysterious reason to suspend someone — instead, they must mean that it is silly for those obligations to appear in the contract in the first place.

Maybe.  Maybe not.  But I suspect not.  Here’s why.

Continue Reading…

Markets and art

Larry Ribstein —  13 October 2010

We often seem to assume that market competition is inconsistent with great art.  In fact this is not true.  People like good art, especially rich people, and therefore will pay for it.  Consider, for example, the state of movies and television today. 

Edward Jay Epstein (HT MR) notes that while subscription television has had turn to “original programming that would appeal to the head of the house,” which means “a medium of entertainment for the elite,” Hollywood “has had a gradual downgrade.” Basically, the chains need to fill seats and sell candy on opening weekends.  This means

  • Movies for “tweens and teens” susceptible to “visually-stunning action * * * that can be encapsulated in 30 second spots” and “who also are the group most likely to consume popcorn, candy, and soda.” 
  • “[S]ince anything original is chancy, marketing executives lean towards formulas that gave been successfully used before; hence, the profusion of action movie sequels.”
  • Given the importance of the foreign market, which likes dubbing, movies need to be “short on dialogue, long on action.” Which of course is what the tweens and teens like too.

So:

it [is] hardly surprising that Hollywood is moving more and more towards comic-book sequels and other action-bumped fantasy fare. Meanwhile television, which must to adopt to a new Internet world in which its audience can cherry-pick what it want to see, anytime and anywhere, via ubiquitous DVRs, tablets, and computers, is now providing the sophisticated niche entertainment that movies once provided. It’s after all show business.

The point is not that television overall is now better than movies, but that great art has migrated to some extent from movies to television, and that this is attributable to market forces.  I would also note that most of the really good stuff is on the cable stations and not on “public” television.

Mad Men returns

Larry Ribstein —  23 July 2010

I’ve described Mad Men as a wonderful illustration of my theory about how business is portrayed in film (here it’s television, but much of the theory still holds):

[A]rtists are inclined to view business as not just different from but antithetical to what they do. Artists (at least modern artists) are into self-expression. In other words, they’re inherently selfish. Business people, on the other hand, are into selling. This means they have to discern other people’s wants and cater to them. Artists call that selling out.

Mad Men has interesting insights into an important aspect of business – advertising:

[Protagonist Don] Draper’s artistic crew tend to have a pedestrian approach to selling – figure out what the consumer wants, and promote that. What makes Draper seem brilliant is that he’s always a step ahead: figure out what people want to want – that is, their dreams about themselves – and sell that. For example, to sell an airline, Draper’s guys figure that men fly, men like sex in the sky, so show them stewardesses’ short skirts. Draper says men want to think of themselves as family guys. So show the little girl asking, “what did you bring me daddy.” Draper sells Kodak’s Carousel the same way — as a device for showing a gauzy version of the lives men would like to think they’re living with their families.

The problem is that the show gives the artists’ side of this – that there’s something fishy, essentially evil and manipulative about advertising. Indeed, in my theory filmmakers would consider advertising at the root of all business evil. But as I said in the above post:

Advertising increases aggregate demand, so we’re all richer. Isn’t it great that somebody’s helping us figure out what to want? And Draper, at least, often shows us a better version of ourselves – sort of like religion.

This debate has important policy implications. After all, much of the current push for more consumer financial regulation is that financial advertising lies. Films have helped pre-condition the electorate to believe this message (though apparently not to be more careful in reading disclosures).

The show is also interesting because of its insights about how firms operate. In my post about the season-ender last November I discussed what the story about the break-up of an ad agency revealed about ad-agency contracts compared to law firms. I concluded:

By the end of the show, individual freedom has prevailed over firms. The evil CEO of the British parent has been vanquished. But will everybody be happy in their new world of instability? I guess we’ll see in Season 4.

Well, Season 4 is here, and the WSJ’s Dorothy Rabinowitz discusses it, focusing on the show’s vivid social commentary. On this I’ll only add that the show has the structure of a situation comedy: the characters are trapped in a folly that the viewer understands but is helpless to do anything about. In this case the folly is our own recent past. The interesting thing is what it tells us about our current illusions.