by Michael Connor

Television viewers in more than 3 million homes in New York City and its suburbs discovered this morning that their cable TV provider was no longer carrying local station WABC, flagship of the ABC Television network, raising the possibility that they might not be able to watch tonight’s globally-televised 82nd annual Academy Awards ceremony.

100305R_0005.nefThe cutoff came after the breakdown of negotiations between The Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC, and Cablevision Systems Corporation, one of the nation’s largest cable companies.   Disney wants more from Cablevision in so-called “retransmission fees” for the right to transmit the WABC signal to the cable company’s subscribers.  When the two sides couldn’t reach agreement by their current contract deadline, Disney pulled the WABC signal.

These two prosperous companies will undoubtedly sort out their dispute, maybe even in time for tonight’s orgy of Hollywood self-congratulation.   What’s notable about the confrontation, however, is the harsh public language used by corporate combatants and the hints it provides of progress in the movement toward corporate governance reform.

On its web site for customers, for example, Cablevision argued: “It is wrong for ABC to demand $40 million in new fees, which is nothing more than a new TV tax, to help pay the salaries and bonuses for top ABC executives.”  (Translation: Executive compensation levels at Disney are a real issue.  That affects the type and quality of TV programming you receive.)

Disney’s WABC fired back: “Cablevision pocketed almost $8 billion last year, and now customers aren’t getting what they pay for – again.  It’s time for Jim Dolan and the Dolan family dynasty to finally step up, be fair, and do what’s right for our viewers.”  (Translation: The Dolan family makes an awfully good living because it tightly controls publicly-held Cablevision through its ownership of a special Class B common stock.  That affects the type and quality TV programming you receive.)

It’s no wonder that The Morning Bridge, a TV industry newsletter, published a special Sunday morning bulletin focusing on the war of words and asking: “Think anybody wins in these situations?”

(Update: Disney and Cablevision reached a tentative agreement and the ABC signal was restored 14 minutes into the Oscar broadcast.)

Is the tide turning?

Well, it could be that the movement for corporate governance reform is actually beginning to score some wins, if only because average citizens and small shareholders are beginning to understand that these issues can really mean something to them.  The question is whether these victories are only short-term tactical advantages or constitute signs of longer-term success.

“Up until now, it’s been sort of a Soviet system,” is the way shareholder democracy is described by Stephen Davis, executive director of the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance and Performance at the Yale School of Management.  “We have been operating in the United States under the myth that boards have been accountable to shareholders.”

Davis’s views are reflected in a generally upbeat weekend New York Times article on shareholder democracy which concludes that “the tide is beginning to turn, albeit slightly” for shareholders.  In addition to various rules changes, the Times cites the availability of more Web resources that help educate smaller investors to the issues, including ProxyDemocracy.org, Shareowners.org and MoxyVote.com.

Governance activist and blogger James McRitchie agrees that that the tide “is turning to become more balanced through increased voice from shareowners. Of course, we are still a long way from the point where most directors feel more accountable to shareowners than CEOs,” he adds.  McRitchie says his optimism about the outlook for shareholders, like that of other activists, is also fed by the work of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s newly-formed Investor Advisory Committee.

“A many-splendoured thing…”

Bob Monks

Bob Monks

Seemingly less sanguine about the prospects for shareholder democracy is Robert A.G. “Bob” Monks, one of the world’s most provocative thinkers on corporate governance.  Back in 2005, my colleague Marjorie Kelly, co-founder and then Editor of Business Ethics Magazine, wrote that “Monks seems to have invented the term ‘corporate governance.’”  As a co-founder with Nell Minow of the Corporate Library, a governance research firm, and founder of Institutional Shareholder Services (acquired in 2007 by RiskMetrics Group), Monks has an established track record in the field.

“Clearly, the modern shareholder, like love, is a many-splendoured thing, but while we can admire such diversity, we also have to ask whether any single class so broadly writ can ever begin to exercise its ownership rights vis a vis entrenched and well-funded corporate power,” Monks writes in a new, lengthy and colorfully-written post on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation.

Monks goes on: “The practical effect of having ownership spread so broadly is that shareholders as a group have virtually no effective ownership rights they can exercise. Senior management pays itself, boards sit idly or complacently by, corporations abrogate ever more authority to themselves and gain an ever stronger voice in the political process, and when it comes time for the piper to be paid, the shareholders pony up in lost equity value and increasingly of late taxpayers pick up the final tab. This is a condition that ultimately serves no public good.”

One possible solution, suggests Monks, is a standard corporate structure with two classes of stock ownership: “passive shareholders, who choose not to exercise ownership rights, and stewardship shareholders, who already bear a fiduciary responsibility for funds under their management.”  Accomplishing that, Monks says, would require federal government action to create “a framework of legally enforceable responsibility.”

Speaking of Oscars…

None of this is likely to help some 3 million Cablevision subscribers in the New York area watch the Academy Awards tonight.   Their outrage is reflected in the comments on local newspaper web sites:

“GREED THY name is america…….if you make a gazillion dollars you want a bazillion……”

“Corporate blackmail with the consumer caught in the middle. Time for regulatory reform.”

Indeed, the current state of shareholder rights calls to mind the Oscar-winning performance of Peter Finch as TV anchorman Howard Beale in the prophetic 1976 film “Network.” Outraged by the respective states of society and the TV industry, Beale explodes spontaneously on-camera, driving ratings through the roof as he gets millions of viewers to join him in screaming: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” (YouTube)

It’s a message that the senior management and boards of Cablevision and Disney – and many other publicly-held U.S. companies – should listen to again and take to heart.


Disclosure: Michael Connor is a past employee of Cablevision Systems Corporation and ABC Television.

Oscar Photo: Darren Decker / ©A.M.P.A.S.