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CBS To CNET: ‘Free Beer, Not Free Speech’

No one who understands the attitude of broadcasters in general or the history of the corporate culture at CBS in particular should have been in the least surprised by the brouhaha over this year’s Consumer Electronic Show’s (CES) “Best of Show” award.

In case you just got here, let me explain.

CNET, one of the tech sites that everybody reads, was bought by CBS in 2008. Most of us, including me, figured this wouldn’t mean anything editorially at the site, that CBS would concentrate on its core business of television and leave CNET to do what it already knows how to do–which is publish a tech oriented web site. This is pretty much what’s happened until now.

CES, which is held in Las Vegas every January, for eight years has contracted with CNET to pick each year’s “Best of Show” award. This year they chose a Dish Network product, Hopper with Sling, but rescinded the award after owner CBS strongly suggested they do so. It seems that CBS, along with other networks, is embroiled in a lawsuit against Dish. The reward went instead to Razor Edge, a gaming tablet.

Needless to say, this didn’t go over well.

Last week, a week or so after this year’s show ended, the CES folks decided to rescind CNET’s recension and give the award to Dish’s product as originally intended, a device that among other things committed the sin of removing television commercials–which it appears is the basis of the TV network’s complaint against Dish.

How ho-hum can you get? This is old news in the age of MP3s, free online news, Hulu and browsers with ad block. Everybody’s old business model is broken and having to adapt to new realities brought about by technical innovations is merely business as usual these days. Welcome to the marketplace, where nothing lasts forever–not even the sole ownership of this years Best of Show, evidently.

Razor Edge would get to keep their prize, of course, but now they would be sharing it. This has the effect of putting a silent asterisk next to their product because although they’ve technically won, it is now obvious they were never really in consideration. Their win has been turned into something else–maybe a loss.

Meanwhile, CNET has been fired by folks at CES. They won’t be choosing the “Best of Show” anymore and they lose credibility as an objective tech news source–at least temporarily.

CBS walks away pretty unscathed because basically it’s only tech folks who’re interested in this story. Although there’s been coverage elsewhere, this hasn’t been a big deal, mostly being played by the mainstream guys and gals as a bizarre yawner. The take on this is exactly what the Tiffany network wants it to be: it’s all been an accidental misstep by CBS. They just didn’t think it through. They didn’t mean to be responsible for ethical lines being crossed by journalists in their employ.

This isn’t true, of course, but we might as well pretend to believe them. This story isn’t going anywhere.

CBS has been here before. This action is not unfamiliar to anyone who was paying attention to this network in the days when they were pioneering either radio, television or both. To be polite, CBS is a chicken malarky organization–always has been, always will be.

Example? Back in the 1950s some CBS news programs employed some of the most brilliant creative people in the business. However, many of them were working for beginners’ wages, even though they should have been at the top of their given professions. That’s because they were on Senator Joe McCarthy’s blacklist as “suspected communists.” Like everyone else, CBS claimed they wouldn’t touch blacklisted talent. They were hired surreptitiously; snuck in the back door. Somehow their identity’s were changed so the CBS suits could look the other way, while utilizing their considerable talents but paying them only a pittance.

Another example would be the Smothers Brothers, whose top rated comedy show was canned by the brass at CBS in 1969. They were afraid because the show’s stars often used the program as a platform to air antiwar sentiments that were then sweeping the nation. This didn’t sit well with some of the network’s advertisers or affiliates. Never mind that this was one of the most popular television shows of the decade with tens of millions of viewers each week.

There are other examples, but none of them matter. I suspect this is a story that will be quickly forgotten. CNET will land on it’s feet and quickly recover it’s reputation, as it probably deserves. CBS will continue to be CBS, working to stay on top in an increasingly diversified media environment, which takes some pretty fancy dancing.

On Friday, John C. Dvorak wrote on the PC Magazine website that he thought all players shared blame in this fiasco. Indeed, he expresses a lot of understanding for the actions of CBS:

“CBS and the other networks are upset about the Hopper and are suing the Dish Network. They can’t splash praise for the device all over their pages. That is, unless you are living under a rock and are totally na├»ve about how the modern legal system works. It would become a litigation nightmare.”

Dvorak goes on to wag his finger at both CNET and CES. According to him, the CNET editors should have recognized a conflict of interest as soon as Dish’s entry was in the running and recused themselves. Likewise, according to Dvorak’s reasoning, CES should’ve seen this coming and taken steps to prevent it.

He makes his point well, but I disagree. This was CBS’s roller coaster. Everybody else was just along for the ride.

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