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Why Cable Has So Many TV Channels You Never Watch—Explained in 1 Lawsuit

Have you ever fantasized about suing cable companies for over-charging you for hundreds, if not thousands, of channels that you don't want to watch? Then please pay attention to a new lawsuit brought by Cablevision, a cable company, against Viacom, a media company that owns channels.

Perhaps it feels like you've gone through the looking glass. A cable company is fighting on your behalf to shrink its channel offerings? But it's not confusing at all. In fact, it's a crystal-clear lesson in who really wears the pants in the TV business.

When you get mad at cable companies, you are, somewhat literally, blaming the messenger. Cable companies are messengers. They build the infrastructure that transports channels to your television. They make deals with media companies, like Time Warner and CBS, who own all the channels you want (and all the channels you don't want). Viacom, for example, owns some channels I love (like Comedy Central) and some channels I've never seen (like Palladia, MTV Hits, and VH1 Classic ). Cablevision has to carry all of them.

Cable companies can't shop the Viacom store like it's a Best Buy and pick whatever they want. The media companies tell the cable providers to buy and carry all of their channels or none of them. Is that fair, or unfair? I don't know. I just know that your cable menu is a thousand channels long, not because your cable company hates you, but because the companies who own the channels have incredible market power to force cable providers to buy everything they're selling.

Cablevision is claiming that Viacom "abused its market power" by forcing the cable company to buy and carry all of the channels, according to The Verge. Indeed, more than 90 percent of the shows Americans watch are owned by just seven media companies, like Time Warner, Disney, and Viacom. That sounds oligopolistic, but it will be up to a judge to determine whether it's really illegal.

Media companies like Viacom and Disney and Time Warner and CBS have pulled off an incredible trick. They've used their market power to force cable companies to carry all of their channels and avoided public criticism of bloated cable menus. Imagine if Coca Cola forced New York City bodegas to force every Diet Coke shopper to also buy a Vitamin Water, a Sprite, and a Fanta ... and New Yorkers responded by burning down the cities bodegas. That's what I mean by blaming the messenger.

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