ABC, Cablevision, and the Price of Arrows

Don't go into the living room, Mom and Dad are fighting again. Those of you outside the New York area probably missed the excitement, but ABC went off the air for several hours on Sunday, vanishing from LCD screens while the clock ticked down to the Oscars. The disappearance was a negotiating tactic in the dispute between ABC's New York affiliate and Cablevision, who are having a gentleman's disagreement on the topic of which one of them should bend over and bite his own ass. The argument goes more or less like this:

>10 PRINT "ABC: Bite your own ass." >20 PRINT "Cablevision: No, you bite your own ass." >30 GOTO 10

My neighborhood isn't in Cablevision's territory, so the whole situation was little more than a charming subplot in a day otherwise dominated by laundry and Mass Effect. Well, except for two things: A) The lingering specter that this would drag on until Tuesday, sparking an uprising of "Lost" fans which would cripple the city. B) The unshakable feeling that I had seen this before. Like, a lot.

The "Lost" uprising fizzled when ABC returned to Cablevision fifteen minutes into the Oscars telecast. And not a moment too soon — there were only five and a half hours to go until Best Picture.

He was their Neda. What, too soon?

However, I doubt I'm the only one who got that wave of déjà vu. This same exact feud keeps happening. Television networks and cable providers are having the same spat over and over. Earlier this year it was HGTV and The Food Network, which went off the air (okay, off the coaxial data stream) on Cablevision, and nearly did the same on Time Warner. In December, it was Fox and Time Warner. The CBS affiliate in Boston went at it with Time Warner in January 2009. Comcast and The NFL Network had their turn in May. Viacom nearly pulled their entire suite of cable networks from Time Warner and Bright House in 2008, which would have blacked out Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, and several others.

The playbook for these match-ups only has two pages. Each side hastily sets up a "Save Television!" website, and then runs advertisements that cast the other side as blood-frenzied murderers of fun. Viacom's ads against Time Warner depicted SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer crying. Crying! Are you kidding me? SpongeBob I get, he cries at the drop of a hat, but Dora? In tears? Now you're messing with my nephew. Now it's personal.

"We just crossed a line, Diego! Can you point to where Diego and I left our dignity? .......... Great! I knew you could!"

Meanwhile, those of us who just want to watch TV in peace are stuck in the middle. We're getting treated like something here, though I can't decide what. There are too many directions to go with this one, so I'll list a few just to cover my bases:

• There's the aforementioned divorce parallel — Mom and Dad throw dishes at each other while we lie on the floor of our rooms in the dark with headphones on, listening to "Pretty Hate Machine." Or, you know, whatever the not-twenty-years-ago equivalent of "Pretty Hate Machine" would be.

• You could go with the image that we're pawns in a chess game, but chess takes careful thought and planning. These feuds have neither. If anything, it's more like we're the checkers in Connect Four — it's a little mind-numbing, nobody really wins, then we get dumped onto the table, swept into a fraying box, and crammed back into the hallway closet behind the winter coats.

• The networks and cable companies are Robert DeNiro and Sharon Stone in "Casino." We're the safety deposit box full of jewelry and cash. Wait, they both might be Sharon Stone, staggering to their deaths in some filthy hotel hallway after their friends have bled them dry and used their cash for coke. Actually yeah, they're both Sharon Stone.

• One is Don Draper and the other is Betty. Each had distinct visions of what this marriage was going to be like, each wants that vision imposed on the other, each has their own leverage. We end up as Sally in this one — stealing money from Grandpa, lying to get attention, and basically on a frantic collision course with the summer of 1968. What, like that's not where they're going with the Sally character?

• Both sides are Longshanks, King Edward I of Britain. "Arrows cost money. Use up the Irish, the dead cost nothing." We're the Irish. Sorry, I saw "Braveheart" on a cross-country flight a few weekends ago, it's kind of been stuck in my head.

Those meatballs don't look half bad. But why is the bottom of the pot so clean?

The knee-jerk reaction to these disputes is that it's all about greed. Good ol' American corporate soul-reaving, a sacrifice on the altar of the Almighty Dollar. To be honest, I'm not so sure that's what's really happening. The broadcasting industry has been around for decades, it's not like they weren't greedy before. This sounds more like desperation. Their way of doing business is melting. None of them know what to do, so they're taking it out on each other, and on us.

Besides, you'd have to be awfully desperate to piss off "Lost" fanatics. I mean Jesus Christ, taking away "Lost" in its final season is like canceling Christmas, only if all the children in the world were meth addicts. And orphans. And the government executed Santa on live TV. Some of the meth orphans won't see the execution, because their cable company will have blacked out the network in a contract dispute. They will be considered the lucky ones, because they didn't have to watch Santa die.

Well, lucky for a meth orphan, anyway.