Most cable TV customers would save money if allowed to pay for only the channels they want to watch, a report from the Federal Communications Commission concluded yesterday, reversing an earlier finding that so-called "a la carte" programming would raise cable bills.
The report set off howls of protest from the cable industry, praise from consumer advocates and mixed reactions from special-interest groups trying to calculate whether mandated channel choice would help or hurt their causes.
Sen. John McCain, a longtime a la carte advocate, praised the FCC study and said he will introduce legislation next week to require channel choice.
"The report confirms what I have believed for years - if consumers are allowed to choose the channels their families view, then their monthly cable bill will be less," the Arizona Republican said.
The cable industry's main trade group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, does not support the notion of a la carte programming.
"Over the last 25 years, the American free enterprise system created the most diverse video programming on earth with the best value for the customer," said Kyle McSlarrow, the group's president. "It is disappointing that the updated report relies on assumptions that are not in line with the reality of the marketplace."
FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said last year that he ordered the agency's staff to restudy the matter because assumptions used for an earlier study were flawed.
The 2004 report, ordered by then-FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, concluded that requiring channel choice could boost cable bills by as much as 30 percent. This stemmed from the expectation that people would watch less television and drive up costs of equipment, marketing and customer service for cable operators.
Those higher costs presumably would be passed on to customers.
The new study, which assumes that most customers watch 17 or fewer channels, argues that they could save up to 13 percent off their monthly bills if they paid only for the channels they want.
Whether TV programs should be bundled as they now are, or available a la carte, has stirred fierce emotions. Many conservatives favor channel choice because they object to paying for channels such as MTV that feature material they regard as objectionable.
These people were generally pleased last year when pressure from regulators and legislators caused several cable operators to offer family-oriented programming bundles intended to excise objectionable channels.
But the possibility of government-required a la carte TV is opposed by religious broadcasters, who fear that if given a choice, viewers would not select them.
Pay-per-channel access "could represent the death knell for much of the wholesome programming available today from smaller independent channels like the Inspiration Networks," said Rod Tapp, an executive with that religious cable operation.
Conservatives with a free-market perspective also tend to object to mandated a la carte cable. Adam Thierer, writing yesterday on his Web log for the free-market think tank Progress & Freedom Foundation, called mandated channel choice a product of the "government-knows-best crowd."
But consumer advocates said that, to the contrary, they seek more freedom of choice - not less.
"Today's action kick-starts the national effort to give consumers' wallets a break and allow them more control over their television programming choices and cable bills," said Jeannine Kenney, a policy analyst with Consumers Union.
A la carte programming would lead to more diversity in television, not less, said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media. The current bundling system gives big broadcasting companies and large cable operators "a chokehold over America's television programming," restricting choices primarily to content they own, he said.
A la carte would end that control as well as reduce customer bills, Rintels said.
Even if the government doesn't mandate a la carte, customers might get that option anyway.
Verizon Communications Inc., which has launched commercial video services in several markets, is studying the possibility of offering a la carte TV as a competitive advantage to lure customers from cable. "We're looking at that," said Bill Kula, a Verizon spokesman. "No decisions have been made."
Jon Van writes for the Chicago Tribune.