Dan TV: When Net Neutrality Was a Big Issue on the East End

Dan TV: When Net Neutrality Was a Big Issue on the East End

Demonstrations have begun taking place against the proposed scrapping of the “Net Neutrality Act” that President Obama passed in 2015. That act made it law that any internet access provider would have to sell that access to everybody at the same price.

Those in favor of scrapping that law say that this will allow providers—Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T, etc.—to expand their businesses better. Opponents say it will reduce competition and discourage startups. A provider could charge one thing for Netflix but another for Hulu or whatever else comes along. They could block Hulu or Netflix altogether—unless you pay.

I say this is also an East End story. We had this battle before.

Sometime in the late 1960s, a guy named Charles Dolan founded Cablevision. It was, at that time, one of several companies that were providing cable channels to Long Island. Another was Sammons Communications, mostly active on the East End. They had wires on telephone poles up some streets but not others.

Dolan bought Sammons and then the other cable companies one after the other. By the late 1970s, Dolan had a virtual monopoly on cable channel access on Long Island.

Around that time, I was thinking of finding new ways to spread the word about Dan’s Papers, and it occurred to me to approach Cablevision about doing it. It would be great if we could have our own channel. What would it cost?

Boy did I get a shock. By this time, Dolan had begun to create cable channels on his own. He’d be the access provider, and he’d provide some of the channel content, too. This is not widely known, because Dolan sold some of the channels he created, and others got merged into larger companies, but he founded HBO, AMC, IFC, SciFi, Comedy Central, Sundance, Bravo, The Playboy Channel and the local TV news channel News 12 Long Island. There was room for hundreds of channels. I thought there should be a Dan’s TV for the Hamptons. What I got told when I inquired was that there would be no channel available to me because I was a competitor. Advertisers would have commercials on their News 12 channel. Cablevision certainly wouldn’t want another company having a local channel.

I went ballistic. He couldn’t be allowed to decide what would be on the cable. He was the only game in town. And he was a PROVIDER, like the company that provided the telephone wires. You couldn’t say one person could make a phone call but not another person. Access to it had to be equal for all. I got nowhere. There would never be a Dan’s TV. I considered this a full-blown attack on the First Amendment’s Freedom of the Press. How could this be legal?

Nobody likes a monopoly, not then and not now. And boy did Cablevision play like a monopoly, I thought. Early on, they had specially equipped trucks that went around through the towns trying to detect families that were illegally hooking up their service to their homes. They filed lawsuits against some people. “Theft of Service” is a crime. They wanted people prosecuted.

One man they caught was a Vietnam War veteran named Ron Campsey. Campsey owned the New Moon Café in East Quogue and he and his wife lived upstairs. He paid for the cable to come to the bar in his restaurant. But he added a cable to the apartment upstairs so his kids could watch Sesame Street.

I went to bat for Campsey in the paper. But Cablevision never backed down. Why should they? For a time, it looked like Campsey might go to jail. Certainly, he wasn’t getting Cablevision anymore. He could get the main network channels from an antenna. That was it. He didn’t have cable TV for years.

Maybe I could bring down Cablevision because they strung their wires on supposedly public telephone poles. Who gave them permission? But it turned out that some poles belonged to the telephone company and other poles belonged to the lighting company, and they really didn’t care who had lines up there. Anybody could get permission.

Battles over Cablevision’s suppression of access continued. Dolan got into battles with rival telecom companies over the airing of the MSG Network, YES, the NFL Network, the Tennis Channel and ESPN3. Sometimes content would be blacked out.

Another example of this kind of behavior was how Cablevision dealt with the requests from towns and villages to have a public channel on the service. Cablevision, and other cable companies around the country, fought against it. Eventually, laws were passed requiring them to offer up a free public channel, so they had to do it. In East Hampton, a wealthy philanthropist named Frazer Dougherty put up a lot of money to build a whole studio, free for public use, on Industrial Road in that town. For more than a decade after this was built and up and running, Cablevision carried it, but it was blurry. Somehow the cable coming from LTV to Cablevision didn’t work properly. Only Cablevision could fix it, it seemed.

I continued to go after Cablevision in any way I could think of. Meanwhile, I had Cablevision in my house. Without it, there was no cable TV.

In 1985, I got a phone call from the Public Relations Department at Cablevision telling me that times had changed and I should let bygones be bygones. They wanted me to come over to their offices in Melville to see their operation. I said forget it.

That same year, DirecTV came to town. And that was the end of Cablevision in my house. I still use DirecTV today and think it’s a fine service. But as it happens, there is also still a vestige of Cablevision at my house. Their Optimum WiFi service sneaks in as a wire through a hole in a wall. That’s it.

A few years ago, a European company called Altice bought a majority interest in Cablevision (called Optimum) for several billion dollars. I’ve been tempted to go with them now that my battle is over. Maybe I’ll get around to that someday.

Naah.

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