There's an African proverb that goes "When elephants fight, the ants get trampled."
A modern tweak on that proverb -- based on the very public smack-down between the elephants known as Time-Warner Cable and Fox Broadcasting -- might be "When elephants fight, the ants have a front-row seat."
Time-Warner and Fox have just announced their squabble has been settled. But for the last month, New Yorkers, and those in other Time-Warner markets, have not only watched, but been invited into the ring.
Rather than keep it a private corporate battle over money, Time-Warner decided to take its argument public, hoping to win subscribers over to their side by casting Fox as the mendacious villain whose unreasonable demands for increased revenue might force the innocent Time-Warner to cease carrying The Simpsons and other Fox programming.
To attempt to rally public opinion, Time-Warner has spent gobs of money on advertising, specifically full-page blasts in the New York Times and elsewhere that use ransom-style headlines to communicate that Fox is trying to hold New Yorkers hostage, and extort money from Time-Warner.
Of course, Time-Warner also created the obligatory supporting website, RollOverOrGetTough.com, which featured the headline "You Can't Get a 300% Raise. Why Should a TV Network?" Fox responded with its own site, KeepFoxOn.com. (Both sites now reflect the truce that has been reached.
Not to be outdone, Scripps -- who owns the Food Network and HGTV -- ran its own full-page in today's New York Post which thanks Cablevision's customers for rallying to their support in a similar fight, and encouraging them to visit ilovefoodnetwork.com and ilovehgtv.com.
Is any of this bluster and posturing effective? I understand the motivation for it, which is to spin what is nothing more than an economic battle over the value of content into a consumer marketing opportunity. Time-Warner knows that they aren't exactly loved by consumers; cable providers rank close to used-car salesmen and investment bankers when it comes to favorability and trust.
So from their point-of-view, the advertising attempts to accomplish two things: a) inoculate them against consumer rage should the stand-off turn into no-more-Homer; and b) position themselves as consumer advocates, as opposed to a company known for some of the worst customer service in the country -- as in the best appointment we can make for you is between noon and five.
But it's a bum idea. Consumers are smart enough to recognize that they are in the center of a revolting public pandering. That the battle is between two capitalist elephants, and any attempt to spin it into a grand struggle on behalf of ordinary subscribers is simply disingenuous.
Indeed, every time a consumer reads something like "We care about you and want you to have access to the best programming at the lowest possible cost," we're smart enough to know what it really means, which is:
"We know that you love The Simpsons, but we're not willing to absorb the cost of bringing it to you, and we're afraid to charge you more because we know we're overcharging and under-servicing you as it is."
I suspect that this kind of very public squabbling will continue. (At the very least, it's a way to pump some money into struggling newspapers, a deliciously ironic twist.) Perhaps one day, Procter and Gamble will decide to raise its slotting fee to Kroger or Safeway, and we'll be seeing ads and commercials from the supermarket chains protesting that "Crest Wants To Hold Your Gums Hostage."
Consumers don't want to take sides in these marketplace struggles, especially when there is no villain, just two giant entities out for their own best interests.
Time-Warner and other companies who take their battles public may think they're creating a new kind of transparency by inviting consumers into the brawl.
But it's a transparency that only allows consumers to see just how manipulative and self-interested they are. Better to keep your selfish struggles to yourself.
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