`Family' fare dulls hunger for cable a la carte

December 25, 2005|By JAY HANCOCK

If you want your MTV, it won't be on Comcast's "Family Tier" package of wholesome fare that is coming to Maryland and the cable company's other markets.

Trying to head off proposals requiring them to sell their products one at a time, as in a tapas restaurant, rather than in a package, as on a Carnival Cruise, cable companies are trying to seem accommodating.

And it looks as if they'll be successful - politically, if not commercially.

Comcast's family package may not be pounced on by subscribers, especially since it doesn't seem to contain ESPN, the popular sports network. But Family Tier and a similar offering from Time Warner should have the intended effect of stalling the drive for "a la carte" cable programming and getting regulators to approve the companies' acquisition of Adelphia cable.

So don't count on being able to assemble your fantasy cable package of Country Music Television, the Golf Channel and SoapNet - and nothing else - just yet.

Comcast's family plan includes National Geographic, HGTV, the Weather Channel, the Disney Channel, the Food Channel and Nickelodeon. More importantly, it does not include MTV, Spike TV, Comedy Central and other channels often showing risque or violent programming that some parents don't want kids seeing.

Parents are among the constituencies calling for "a la carte" pricing for cable - letting customers pick and choose among channels and paying by the piece. Industry products typically include huge bundles of programming and don't allow for buying one or a few channels at a time.

If you want the Weather Channel, you have to buy all the other stuff, too.

Joining those seeking to shield kids from inappropriate fare are consumer advocates who blame fatter cable packages for driving up prices.

Cable companies keep adding channels, claiming consumers want them. But it's generally all or nothing for much of the new programming, and consumer advocates, too, want viewers to be able to select what they want and pass on what they don't want without paying for it.

For years the Federal Communications Commission supported the cable companies in the a la carte debate by suggesting a la carte wasn't feasible and would result in higher prices. But the growth of digital cable, in which slicing and dicing of video content is the whole point and with which a la carte is obviously feasible, eroded that stance.

A few weeks ago the FCC's new chairman, Kevin J. Martin, said that a la carte pricing "could be economically feasible and in consumers' best interests," according to various news reports.

The context was important. Martin spoke at a hearing on indecency before the Senate commerce committee, some of whose members have talked about regulating cable content for decency the way broadcast content is regulated now.

His statement got major news coverage, but the excitement looks premature.

"Could be economically feasible" is not a ringing endorsement. Don't expect the FCC to push for a la carte anytime soon.

Rather than a policy map, Martin's comments were a warning to the cable industry to do something - anything - to respond to unhappiness over cable trash, which has become a popular Republican complaint.

At the same hearing he all but wrote the script for what the cable companies should do next.

"Cable and satellite operators could offer an exclusively family-friendly programming package as an alternative to the `expanded basic' tier on cable or the initial tier [on satellite]," Martin said, according to transcripts.

"This alternative would enable parents to enjoy the increased options and high-quality programming available through cable and satellite without having to purchase programming unsuitable for children. Parents could get Nickelodeon and Discovery without having to buy other adult-oriented fare," he said.

Three weeks later, Comcast rolls out the Family Tier package for an average price of $31.20 a month.

So far the FCC hasn't commented on the packages, saying it wants to see details. But it looks like game over. The FCC can claim victory. Cable companies can claim to be family-friendly, even if Comcast's Family Tier wouldn't be everybody's optimal collection of channels. And tighter regulation of cable and satellite will be stymied.

Don't look for the Family Tier to be enormously popular. There's no History Channel, which seems G-rated and educational to boot. And if there's no ESPN, which takes over the National Football League's Monday Night Football next year, how are people going to watch the Ravens on Monday night?

But don't look for a la carte programming, either. The days of "build your own" cable menus will be here someday, but not yet.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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