Cable, À La Carte?

FCC Commissioner Kevin J. Martin
This column was written by Cesar V. Conda.
Should consumers be allowed to purchase the television channels that they want to view? Should parents have the option of buying "family friendly" packages of channels from cable and satellite operators?

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin J. Martin believes they should. For the past three years, the FCC's Martin has urged the television industry to voluntarily take action against the exploding problem of coarse and indecent programming.

That the fare on television has reached new lows is no longer subject to debate. Seventy percent of television shows in the 2004-05 season had some sexual content; the number of sexual scenes has nearly doubled since 1998; and the use of profanity during the family hour has increased 95 percent from 1998 to 2002.

During a recent U.S. Senate forum on decency, Martin called on America's parents to take greater responsibility over what their children are watching on television, and on the industry — especially cable and satellite operators — to provide parents with better tools with which to do so.

Contrary to press reports, Martin did not call for new government regulation of what consumers watch on TV. Instead, he offered three voluntary options for the industry to consider.

First, the cable and satellite operators should strive to provide channels on an "à la carte" basis, and offer a "family friendly" bundle of channels as an alternative to the current basic bundle.

Right now, cable consumers face an all-or-nothing choice. This would be analogous to requiring consumers to purchase the Sunday edition of the Washington Post with a Penthouse magazine insert, or both the Washington Times and the New York Times in order to guarantee a diversity of views.

If cable operators unbundled their programming, parents could buy the Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, and other family-friendly fare without being forced to pay for objectionable material.

Second, subscription operators could offer a "block and reimburse" option to consumers. Currently, cable providers have the technological capability to block individual channels, and many already provide this service to consumers. It's only fair that consumers be reimbursed the per-channel fee of the channels they choose to block.