A-la-carte cable gains major ally

November 30, 2005|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Letting cable TV customers pick the individual channels instead of making them buy program packages would likely save subscribers money and help them avoid violent and sexually explicit shows, the nation's top communications regulator said yesterday.

"It could end up being beneficial to consumers in many instances," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin told a Senate forum on television and radio decency.

It's not clear whether Martin's view, which runs counter to that of Michael K. Powell, his predecessor as FCC chairman, will actually lead to a new cable TV pricing system.

The agency cannot require the change, and Congress may be reluctant to pass a law forcing cable providers to adopt it.

However, a forthcoming FCC report detailing the agency's position will give ammunition to cable critics who say consumers pay too much and lack tools to protect children from objectionable programming.

Under an a-la-carte system, consumers might buy a basic package and then "opt out" of specific channels with their bills reduced appropriately, Martin said. Another option would let consumers pick a certain number of channels from a menu of programming.

Martin raised the possibility of a-la-carte pricing as one way cable and satellite TV providers can address the concerns of parents worried about risque shows.

"Parents would then be able to receive and pay for only the programming that they are comfortable with bringing into their home," he said.

The cable industry reacted with alarm.

Mandatory a-la-carte cable pricing is a "very dangerous idea," said Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

He said such a system faces technical hurdles, violates free speech protections and hurts consumers by raising prices and curtailing channels.

"We have 390 cable networks with programming for every taste," he said. "The reason those networks survive is because they are bundled together, allowing them an opportunity to be offered, to gain new subscribers and viewership."

However, consumer groups praised Martin's comments.

"His support for a-la-carte pricing should help push it forward, giving consumers' wallets a break," said Gene Kimmelman, senior public policy director for Consumers Union.

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