Cable, À La Carte?

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.

Alternatively, the subscription providers should voluntarily subject their basic expanded packages to the same indecency standards covering broadcast television. To its credit, the National Cable Telecommunications Association has been considering doing just that.

Unfortunately, these options are prohibited by current contracts between the television distributors and programmers. Some providers — such as Echostar and Cablevision — and potential entrants such as the telephone companies would like to provide more choices to consumers, but cannot because they are being denied content by programmers opposed to à la carte pricing.

The critics of Martin's ideas have resorted to overblown rhetoric about how the government plans to regulate America's viewing habits, which would result in higher prices (although I'm not sure my monthly cable bill can go any higher) and kill off fledgling competition to cable television.

Once again, Martin did not call for new regulation. And under voluntary à la carte pricing, subscription television providers would still charge a fee for basic and expanded packages that would cover their fixed costs.

More important, rapid technological advances — especially the development of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) — are increasing consumer choices. For instance, IPTV can be delivered over telephone lines into the home. Not only will these competitive pressures keep prices in check, but many of the new entrants would offer à la carte options in order to distinguish themselves in the marketplace.

Indeed, the best way to address indecency is to remove economic regulation, at both the state and federal level, which impedes competition among video providers.

Some cable TV providers are beginning to heed Martin's call. The December 12 Wall Street Journal reported that several cable operators — including Comcast, Cox Communications, and Time Warner — are considering creating a family-friendly tier.

Conservatives of all stripes should commend FCC chairman Martin for using the enlightening power of the Bully Pulpit, instead of the coercive power of government mandates, to produce an outcome that most Americans support: protecting our children from indecent programming.

Cesar Conda, formerly assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Dick Cheney, is a principal at Navigators, LLC, a public-affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
By Cesar V. Conda
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online