Cablevision Discovers The Public’s Interest

The good folks at Cablevision have an interesting question: Why should taxpayers shell out up to $600 million to build a new football stadium on the West Side?

Why, indeed? According to the latest anti-stadium ad campaign, underwritten by Cablevision, this money could be better spent on the city’s heroic firefighters.

Until now, on monetary matters, Cablevision was best known for its utter disregard for the financial plight of people like heroic firefighters, who find their cable bills going up even as their service and choices decline. Until now, Cablevision’s commitment to middle-class people like firefighters was exemplified by the outrageous ticket prices it charges to see its two premiere sports franchises, the Knicks and the Rangers. Suffice to say, those firefighters whose well-being Cablevision advocates dare not bring their families to a Knicks or Rangers game because most firefighters can’t afford a $200 night out.

Suddenly, however, Cablevision seems to care very much about the fiscal health of people like firefighters. And in their name, the Cablevision empire has been underwriting a campaign to block the stadium proposal. It’s all about heroic people like firefighters, according to Cablevision. They deserve better, the ads say. While the ads do not specifically cite the Fire Department’s tremendous sacrifice on 9/11—that would be too distasteful, even for a cable-television company—the message surely is implied. Mayor Bloomberg wants to build a stadium on the backs of firefighters who deserve better: That’s the Cablevision message.

Populism being the next-to-last refuge of the scoundrel, perhaps it isn’t surprising to find Cablevision trying to cast itself as a champion of public servants. Nevertheless, the message certainly is curious, coming from a company that receives an annual $11 million tax break from the very city whose fiscal priorities it now questions.

One suspects we’ll wait in vain if we expect that Cablevision, having discovered a social conscience hidden beneath the wads of cash collected from cable-TV subscribers, will soon speak out against tax breaks for rich companies. The Fire Department could do wonders with the $11 million or so a year that Cablevision doesn’t have to pay in real-estate taxes on Madison Square Garden. Since the city first cut a deal with the previous management, the Garden’s owners have received $167 million in tax breaks. Oddly enough, there is no mention of this in Cablevision’s campaign for sounder fiscal practices.

The civic activists who oppose the stadium are happy to accept Cablevision’s money and support, and they have persuaded themselves that the company’s chairman, James Dolan, is acting out of a high regard for the public interest. Perhaps one of these activists will take Mr. Dolan aside and explain the difference between the city’s capital budget and its expense budget. If the city chips in $300 million (along with the state’s $300 million) to build a platform over the West Side rail yards to accommodate the stadium, the money won’t be coming out of firefighters’ paychecks.

“The platform would be built with capital money,” said Bill Cunningham, Mayor Bloomberg’s communications director. “Paying firefighters comes out of the expense budget. The city can’t use capital money to pay for operating expenses. That’s against the law.”

So it’s more than a little disingenuous for Cablevision to suggest that the city’s $300 million share of the stadium project could be used to pay higher salaries.

Precisely why Cablevision has discovered reform politics, West Side style, remains a mystery. Given that the company has proved itself to be one of the nation’s worst sports-franchise owners, one might assume that Mr. Dolan and company would prefer to keep a low profile. One might also wonder how a company which squeezes sports fans for every dollar it can would dare to pose as a champion of the squeezees. But once you’ve built a cable-television empire, you probably figure you can say or do just about anything. And why not? Cable-TV monopolies like Cablevision have a deserved reputation for dubious practices, but it’s not as though the nation’s politicians are demanding redress for their constituents.

Mr. Dolan’s vehicle for his pro-firefighter, anti-stadium campaign is an ad hoc organization called the New York Association for Better Choices. In a better world, Mr. Dolan’s customers would join the organization with the notion of turning it and its announced ideals against its patron. An organization pledged to fight for better choices would do well to agitate against Cablevision and its clubby colleagues in the cable-television business, operators of a system designed to crush consumer choice. Of the many hypocrisies at work here, the notion of Cablevision working on behalf of choice is among the most ridiculous.

And if Mr. Dolan and his colleagues truly are upset that firefighters are working without contracts, the solution seems obvious: renounce the real-estate tax break and agitate against similar deals, and perhaps the city will be able to afford the raises that firefighters deserve.