A la carte cable

December 19, 2005

In a world rapidly moving to on-demand content - myriad sources of information and entertainment on your TV, computer, phone and MP3 player available exactly when and how you want, for a fee - big cable and satellite TV systems are finding themselves out of step with many consumers and even the Federal Communications Commission.

Having long profited from monopoly franchises that sell packages of channels mostly bundled by a handful of large conglomerates (such as ABC-Disney), the big cable providers are now under pressure to offer their channels a la carte, each with its own price.

That way customers would only pay for channels they want and wouldn't be forced to receive and pay for channels they don't want. It's such a good idea - like not forcing a willing subscriber to Time magazine to also receive Field & Stream, as one cable critic puts it - that it's a wonder it has taken so long for Washington to get around to it.

Driving the talk of a la carte cable are, of course, complaints from families and politicians who don't want to accept such racy channels as MTV and FX on their televisions as the price of receiving, say, the Nickledeon channel. The cultural issue of ever-rising sex and violence on TV - cable as well as network - has a real basis; even network programming during so-called family hours is too often highly questionable. But this issue is broader than concerns over on-air decency; it questions whether TV customers will be allowed to exert their own choices about what channels they purchase - and ultimately whether market forces will be allowed freer rein in the cable and satellite TV marketplaces.

Big cable providers have long maintained that a la carte offerings aren't technically or financially feasible. But FCC Chairman Kevin Martin recently indicated that new agency research doesn't support those counter-arguments and that parents do need new ways to control TV content. Terrified, the largest cable operators, Comcast and Time Warner, all of sudden conceded that they would offer new "family-friendly" packages of channels. We'd bet, however, that their executives' definitions of family-oriented TV won't match so precisely with your family's definition.

If sex and violence on TV were the only issue here, we'd just say that it's up to parents to exert more control over what shows their children watch. But while that's always true, the underlying issue is providing a greater degree of consumer choice - letting viewers, not cable and satellite systems and their content wholesalers, a relative few large entertainment corporations - decide most of what's available on TV.

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