While the cable industry generally loathes the notion of an "a la carte" pricing system, at least one cable company and a potentially big cable competitor have embraced it.
A la carte would allow cable subscribers to pick and pay for individual channels rather than being forced to buy packages. A parent, for example, could pick Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network — and not have to take MTV or other channels they may find objectionable as part of a bundled package.
The idea attracted attention this week on Capitol Hill when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin told industry leaders they need to give parents more tools to help navigate the hundreds of channels on cable and satellite TV.
"Something needs to be done," Martin said at an all-day forum on broadcast indecency.
One option he suggested would be an a la carte choice system — something the cable industry, for the most part, has staunchly opposed. But Martin found support for the idea from Cablevision Systems Corp., which operates in the New York City area and has supported a la carte choice before.
"We do not believe in the long term that selling programming a la carte will be detrimental to either programmers or cable operators," Cablevision Chairman Charles Dolan said Thursday.
Other providers say selling channels individually would force some channels out of business if they can't attract enough advertising.
"We would have a dramatically decreasing universe of availability of different points of view and different networks," said Michael Willner, chief executive of Insight Communications, which has 1.3 million subscribers in Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
Other channels might charge more to cable systems to carry them, leading to higher prices for consumers, the providers say.
Martin said his agency is finishing a report showing that a cable choice pricing system might not be more expensive and would be in the best interest of consumers.
The report would contradict a study the agency released last year, before Martin became chairman, that said cable subscribers could face a rate increase of as much as 30 percent under an a la carte system. Martin said the earlier study relied on faulty assumptions and incorrect analysis.
Watchdog groups like the Parents Television Council see a la carte as the ultimate solution to objectionable cable programming.
"Everyone's a winner," said PTC President L. Brent Bozell. "People who don't want to take and pay for raunchy programming don't have to, and people who want it can take it."
Cable operators counter that parents can use blocking controls to shield kids from certain channels and programs.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle have bemoaned the amount of sex, violence and racy programming that children are exposed to on TV. But it's not clear whether there's much of an appetite to force a la carte on the cable industry.
Even so, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, made clear at Tuesday's indecency summit that if the cable industry doesn't take action to help concerned parents, Congress will.
"We have a right to establish the kinds of controls the country demands and do it constitutionally," Stevens said.
Analysts say other forces, such as new competition from the phone companies, may cause the industry to reconsider cable choice. "Cable is facing competition for the first time," said independent telecom analyst Jeff Kagan.
AT&T, which plans to start selling video services later this month, said it supports an a la carte option for consumers.
"As we enter the video market, it is our goal to deliver more choices to our customers when they want it, in the way they want it," AT&T said in a statement.