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Chris Westerkamp: I Just Wanted To Watch Fargo

Thursday, May 08, 2014


As I write this, the Supreme Court is considering arguments about a company that is aiming to disrupt the delivery of broadcast television networks to consumers in a handful of states. The company, Aereo plan is to take the free over the air signals from local stations and deliver them to viewers on their computers at a greatly reduced cost to what consumer are paying for cable. In addition they allow their clients to record and view shows at their convenience, much as they would with a DVR. The problem is that Aero claims that they do not have to pay for retransmission fees to broadcasters because the signals are already free to consumers and they claim not to be a programming or cable company, rather a technology company with a superior antenna system.

This of course is a similar argument that cable companies used for years before congress passed a law that required them to negotiate and pay local stations for carrying their programming.

As a veteran TV broadcast executive, my first instinct is that Aereo is just looking to exploit a loophole in copyright laws, to take advantage of broadcasters the way cable companies used to do, but because of my recent experience as a consumer I’m a little conflicted.

A couple of weeks ago I saw some promos for the new series “Fargo” on the FX channel. I loved the original movie by the Coen brothers and more so having lived in Minneapolis. The reviews were positive and the cast of Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman made me want to see the program all the more.

Because the FX channel was not on my current Dish Network lineup (In this context I consider cable and satellite providers to be the same) I called to see what it would take to add it. I have a very basic programming package plus two premium channels and I’m not a sports fan. So I pay considerably less than the average cable/satellite customer. I found out that to add FX I’d have to buy a package to nearly quadruple my basic monthly bill from $20 to $79.

To begin with, I don’t need or want or watch 75% of the channels I already have on my basic Dish package. I don’t want shopping channels, religious, or sports channels or with all due respect Oprah’s channel. The big con with satellite and cable companies is they pretend that they are designing programming packages for the benefit of the customer, when the opposite is true. If you like food shows, there’s one in the basic package but the others come only with the next package of 200 more channels for a lot more money. They are not packaged to satisfy the consumers’ preferences, they are designed to move you up to the more expensive package.

The cable and satellite companies have long resisted offering an a la carte menu of programs, claiming that it required expensive technology that the customer would not pay for. The simple fact is if they can deliver a movie on pay per view, they can deliver an a la carte menu to consumers. It’s just a matter of computer code.

Aside from their notoriously bad customer service, Cable’s biggest competitive threat is the Internet. Consumers are abandoning cable service as more discover how to access their favorite programs online, on Netflix, Hulu, XBOX or Apple TV. Bloomberg reported recently that Time Warner Cable lost more than 800,000 customers in 2013.

Over the last twelve years this same shift has played out in the music business with the advent of iTunes. Music a la carte allowed consumers to download individual songs from ITunes vs. having to buy an entire CD’s just to get the few songs they really wanted. Record companies were no longer in control. iTunes and the iPod revived and sinking music business with more musicians and earning more revenue through a customer focused and democratic business model.

Once you are able to select just the programs you are interested in, it becomes pretty clear that Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Verizon and their satellite brethren have become expert at running a programming three card monte.

The cable business is anything but democratic or I wouldn’t be faced with paying $79 vs. $20 a month just to add one channel to my line up to watch “Fargo” on FX. It’s not technology causing this problem its cable company monkey business.

Comcast, which consumers rank at the bottom of the customer service heap in America is trying to merge with Time Warner Cable, which ranks 2nd worst. The FCC and justice department are evaluating the merits and possible pitfalls of such a marriage. While they don’t compete with one another in any market the combined companies would have more leverage to negotiate with program suppliers and broadcasters for retransmission fees. They would have a larger voice in refusing to make changes to meet customer needs such as offering a la carte programming.

Now with all this as a background, consider the proposed changes to regulating the Internet from FCC Commissioner and former cable industry executive Tom Wheeler. He thinks that it’s okay for broadband providers, which are almost exclusively cable and Telcom companies, to be able to offer different tiers of access to consumers according to Internet speed. The fastest service would be most expensive and of course the fastest speed is critical for watching video from cable’s nemesis, web based program providers like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.

If Tom Wheeler were a character in Fargo, he’d be the guy feeding the American consumers into a wood chipper.

So cable companies would be able to frustrate consumers with Internet offerings just like they do with convoluted programming packages. No one has really expressed what possible advantage consumers would get from slower Internet service, especially when video is exploding on all online content providers. This is a plan completely contrived to suppress competition and stuff the coffers of broadband providers. There is absolutely nothing in these discussions about service for consumers.

Net Neutrality is not dead yet. The real decisions are in the future. There are hearings scheduled. The FCC has set a preliminary vote for May 15th. Franken is leading the charge in congress to make broadband providers agnostic regarding what is being provided over the web.

(One negative sign is that Netflix made an agreement to insure its’ access to Internet speed with Comcast in January.)

Twenty years ago the anti trust alarms would be going off with such an obvious evidence of conflict of interest, especially in and industry where there is so little competition. The fact of life in Washington D.C. today is that massive campaign contributions have dulled the governments’ ability to act when anti-competitive forces join to the detriment of consumers. Cable companies and Telcoms rank near the top when it comes to deploying political contributions and armies of lobbyists.

At the risk of being completely naïve, isn’t the FCC supposed to represent American consumers first?

For any consumers hoping for some positive disruption in an industry they hold in low regard it’s a pivotal time. Given the culture in Washington D.C., it’s hard to be optimistic that the winds will blow in the consumers’ direction. I’ll probably have to wait to see the new “Fargo” until some time next year, probably on Netflix.
Chris is a 35-year career in media and strategic management, operating, TV stations and sales divisions for ABC, CBS, Belo and McGraw-Hill. He is a Principal in four Internet start-ups in San Francisco, LA and Denver including Third Age Media and Active Youth Network. Resides in Cranston, Rhode Island.


Related Slideshow: 50 Movies Filmed in Massachusetts

Prev Next

The Departed


Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Jack Nicholson

Shot in Boston, this crtically acclaimed drama took home four Oscars, including one for Best Picture.

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Ted 2


Director: Seth MacFarlane

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Morgan Freeman, John Slattery

In Ted 2, Ted wants to be a father, but will have to prove he's a person in the court of law.

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Mona Lisa Smile


Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Styles

Julia Roberts was paid $25 million for her role in this drama, which was filmed on location at Wellesley College.

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A Civil Action


Director: Steven Zaillian

Cast: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy

Set in Woburn, this Oscar nominated movie was filmed in Boston, Northbridge, Woburn, Palmer, and Deadham. 

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Sea of Trees


Director: Gus Van Sant

Cast:  Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe

Filmed in Worcester and surrounding areas, Sea of Trees is the story of a suicidal American (McConnaughey) who befriends a Japanese man (Watanabe) lost in a forest near Mt. Fuji and the two search for a way out.

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The Boondock Saints


Director: Troy Duffy

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flannery, Norman Reedus

Filmed in numerous locations throughout Boston, this cult classic features the Boston Common, Copley Square, Newbury Street and the Longfellow Bridge. 

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What Doesn't Kill You


Director: Brian Goodman

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Mark Ruffalo, Amanda Peet

Centered around South Boston's Irish Mob, this crime drama was filmed entirely in Boston. 

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Black Mass


Director: Scott Cooper

Cast: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson 

The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf. 

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The Firm


Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplhorn, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris

Based on a John Gisham novel of the same name, this legal thriller was partly filmed in Boston and Cambridge. 

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Shutter Island


Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley

This box office hit was partly shot at the Medfield State Hospital, the Boderline State Park in Sharon, and Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor.

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Director: Richard A. Colla

Cast: Burt Reynolds, Yul Brynner, Raquel Welch

This action comedy features Charlestown's City Square, the Longfellow Bridge, the North End, the Boston Common, and the Public Garden.

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Director: Larry Charles

Cast: Sascha Baron Cohen

A segment of this mockumentray was filmed at the Four Seasons Kosher Bed & Breakfast in Newton. 

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In Dreams


Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Annette Bening, Aiden Quinn, Robert Downey, Jr.

Set in New England, this psychological thriller was partially filmed at Northhampton State Hospital and Smith College in Northampton. 

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Director: Robert Schwentke

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon

Primarily filmed in Boston and Raynham, this supernatural comedy was based on a comic book. 

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Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw

This Oscar winning movie was mostly shot on location in Martha's Vineyard. 

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To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday


Director: Michael Pressman

Cast: Peter Gallagher, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer

This romantic drama was filmed on location in Nantucket.

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The Verdict


Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden

Set in Boston, this Oscar nominated crime drama includes scenes shot at the Massachusetts State House and Quincy Market.

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Director: Frank Coraci

Cast: Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb

This comedy was filmed on location at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.

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Altered States


Director: Ken Russell

Cast: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Charles Haid, Bob Balaban

This Oscar nominated science fiction-horror film was partially shot at the Harvard Medical School and the Logan International Airport in Boston.

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Gone Baby Gone


Director: Ben Affleck

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris

Set in Boston, this Oscar nominated mystery includes scenes filmed at Murphy's Law in Boston and Meadow Glen Mall in Medord. 

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With Honors


Director: Alek Keshishian

Cast: Joe Pesci, Brendan Fraser, Patrick Dempsey

This comedy-drama was filmed on location at Harvard University, and also includes scenes filmed at the Boston Athenaeum.

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Bride Wars


Director: Gary Winick

Cast: Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, Candice Bergen

This comedy was filmed in several MA locations including Boston, Salem, and Sudbury.

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Field of Dreams


Director: Phil Alden Robinson

Cast: Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones

This Oscar nominated movie included scenes filmed at Fenway Park in Boston. 

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Knight and Day


Director: James Mangold

Cast: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard

Filmed mainly in Boston and Bridgewater, this action movie also includes scenes filmed at Worcester Regional Airport. 

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Captain Phillips


Director: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

This Oscar nominated movie includes a segment filmed at the Worcester Regional Airport.

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School Ties


Director: Robert Mandel

Cast: Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

Centered around a New England prep school, this drama was mostly shot on location at Middlesex School in Concord. 

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Moonlight Mile 


Director: Brad Silberling

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon

This romantic drama includes scenes filmed at the town common in Cohasset and Haley's Liquor Store in Marblehead.

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Director: Jonathan Mostow

Cast: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike

Filming of this science fiction movie took place in many MA locations, including Woburn, Lynn, Worcester, Milford, Hopedale, Taunton, Lawrence, and Wayland.

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The Thomas Crown Affair


Director: Norman Jewison

Cast: Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway

Shot primarily on location in Boston, this Oscar winning heist film includes scenes filmed in the Prudential Tunnel and Copp's Hill Cemetery.

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The Fighter


Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo

Filmed in Lowell, this boxing drama won two Oscars in 2011. 

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Summer Catch


Director: Mike Tomlin

Cast: Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jessica Biel, Matthew Lillard

Although this romantic comedy was mainly filmed in North Carolina, it was also partly shot on Cape Cod, where the story takes place.

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The Women


Director: Diane English

Cast: Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing

An updated version of a 1939 film on the same name, this comedy was shot on location in Georgetown, Dover, Gloucester, Sudbury, Medfield and Boston.

Prev Next

Stuck on You


Directors: Peter and Bobby Farrelly

Cast: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Eva Mendes, Cher

Shot in Vineyard Haven and Rockport, this comedy follows conjoined twins who move from Martha's Vineyard to Los Angeles. 

Prev Next

The Witches of Eastwick


Director: George Miller

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon

This Oscar nominated fantasy-comedy was partly shot at Abbot Hall in Marblehead, Milton Academy in Milton, and the Wang Center in Boston.

Prev Next

The Town


Director: Ben Affleck

Cast: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm

Filmed primarily in Boston, this Oscar nominated crime drama also includes scenes shot at the MA Correctional Institution in Walpole and at Anderson Regional Transportation Center in Woburn. 

Prev Next

Fever Pitch


Directors: Peter and Bobby Farrelly

Cast: Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon

Shot in Boston, this romantic comedy touts locations such as Fenway Park and East Boston High School.

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Grown Ups 1 and 2

2010, 2013

Director: Dennis Dugan

Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade

These comedies were filmed in numerous MA locales, including Boston, Lowell, Lynn, Marblehead, and Southborough. 

Prev Next

The Proposal


Director: Anne Fletcher

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Mary Steenburgen

A remake of the Indian film The Boss, this romantic comedy was partly filmed in Rockport, Boston, Gloucester, and at the Beverly Municipal Airport.

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The Way Way Back


Director: Nat Faxon

Cast: Liam James, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell

Set in Cape Cod, this comedy-drama was filmed in Onset, Wareham, Marshfield, and at Water Wizz in East Wareham.

Prev Next

Ghostbusters 3


Director: Paul Feig

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Wiig 

A remake of the cult classic Ghostbusters is currently being filmed in Dorchester. An open casting call is scheduled for Sunday, June 28.

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Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond, Greg Kinnear

This Oscar nominated remake was partly shot on Martha's Vineyard.

Prev Next

The Pink Panther 2


Director: Harald Zwart

Cast: Steve Martin, Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Andy Garcia

This comedy sequel was filmed in Bedford, Boston, Ipswich, Westwood and Winchester.

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The Social Network


Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

An adaptation of the book The Accidental Billionaires, this Oscar winning drama was shot in Andover, Boston, Cambridge, and Meford. 

Prev Next

Paul Blart: Mall Cop


Director: Steve Carr

Cast: Kevin James, Jayma Mays, Keir O'Donnell

This action comedy was filmed at three MA malls: Burlington Mall in Burlington; Northshore Mall in Peabody; and South Shore Plaza in Braintree.

Prev Next

Good Will Hunting


Director: Gus Van Sant

Cast: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver

Set in Boston, this Oscar winning movie was partly filmed at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Prev Next

That's My Boy


Director: Sean Anders

Cast: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Leighton Meester

Shot entirely in MA, filming locations included the Cabaret Lounge in Peabody and Old Everett High School in Everett. 

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Director: Robert Luketic

Cast: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Bosworth

Inspired by the true story of the MIT Blackjack Team, filming locations included the Harvard Medical School in Cambridge and Boston University.

Prev Next

The Heat


Director: Paul Feig

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Mellisa McCarthy

This hit comedy was primarily filmed in Boston and includes shots of a Denny's in Danvers. 

Prev Next

Labor Day


Director: Jason Reitman

Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Tobey Maguire

This Goiden Globe nominated film was shot in 15 locations throughout MA, including Acton, Boston, Mansfield, and Sutton. 

Prev Next

American Hustle


Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence

Nominated for 10 Oscars, this hit film was shot in Boston and Worcester.


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