A CURIOUS corporate showdown between CBS and Time Warner Cable might be the opening round in a campaign that liberates cable customers from paying for channels they never watch.

The skirmish is a variation on the theme of network neutrality. But instead of the access provider blocking a content provider from reaching customers, CBS withheld its programming from Time Warner Cable.

CBS went dark in cities around the country, and left Time Warner customers paying for something they were not getting.

This is a fight between two entities — the signal providers and the signal carriers — that make scads of money from consumers stuck paying for bundles of TV signals they probably do not want.

Media-policy analyst Matt Wood, of Free Press, explains CBS and Time Warner are fighting over retransmission consent fees. The Federal Communications Commission can wag a finger about a failure of good-faith negotiations. This is not about network neutrality, but there are concerns about repercussions.

Meanwhile, cable customers in selected markets are stranded. Congress is taking notice. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, issued a statement making it clear he did not want to see free and open Internet access degraded by this CBS-Time Warner dispute.

Customers pay more as both sides compete to raise their prices. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has legislation to allow cable viewers to package and pay for exactly the channels they want.

Corporate resistance to this so-called à la carte option is the impediment, not technical limitations.

Net neutrality is worth fighting for. But the assault on consumers can take many forms, and CBS and Time Warner are airing one version.