On cable TV, government doesn't know best

April 17, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- In the marketplace for meals, the government lets restaurants decide the best way to do business. Most establishments let you select from a menu. Some feature fixed-price buffets. Both have their patrons. But now some important people in Washington are proposing a federal ban on buffets, though not in the realm of food.

The smorgasbords they have in mind consist of bundles of television networks offered to viewers. If you subscribe to cable TV, you generally select from a handful of programming packages, rather than ordering individual stations, and then watch (or surf) whatever channels you please. A coalition of critics demands that cable dining be offered "a la carte."

One proponent is Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Commerce Committee, who thinks consumers should be free to pay for only those channels they want. A ban on TV buffets enjoys the support of liberal groups such as the Consumer Federation of America and conservative ones such as the Parents Television Council.

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission published a report arguing that a la carte programming "could provide substantial benefits to subscribers," including savings of up to 13 percent. The conspicuous fact about the study is that it repudiates a 2004 FCC study that said this approach would raise cable bills.

The new findings conveniently support the declared preferences of FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin. In a recent visit to the Chicago Tribune, he made clear that his two priorities are to toughen enforcement of the rules against indecency and push for a la carte programming, which in his mind are closely related.

But tools are available for anyone averse to raunch on TV. Since 2000, manufacturers have had to equip each new set with a V-chip, which can be used to filter shows based on their ratings. Cable operators will block individual channels on request, at no charge.

In Mr. Martin's world, though, it's not enough that viewers can wall themselves off from racy fare. By selling programming in all-you-can-eat packages featuring everything from CNN to MTV, he says, cable companies impose an unfair burden on viewers who find some networks offensive.

"Why should they charge for that channel if the consumer doesn't want it?" he asks. "You're forced to purchase some channels to get others, and people feel frustrated." Of course, the same argument could be made about individual channels: Why should I have to pay for poker coverage on ESPN when all I watch is baseball?

But if a la carte were what most consumers preferred, cable companies would provide it. They don't, for the same reasons newspapers don't sell the sports section or the comics separately. First, it costs more to do it that way. Second, a diverse package of offerings attracts more customers.

Mr. Martin complains that viewers are compelled to buy stuff they don't want to get the stuff they do. But he has it backward, said Thomas Hazlett, a professor of law and economics at George Mason University and former chief economist at the FCC. Subscribers, Mr. Hazlett explains in a recent paper, "only pay the subscription fee if the value of the programs they do demand exceeds the fee. In reality, they pay only for the tier programs they desire to receive, and the cable operator throws the additional channels in for free."

Some cable customers don't want particular channels, but they get them for free and they can get rid of them for free. And most subscribers would rather have a lot of options, even if they don't watch most of them.

They know what Mr. Martin doesn't: When it comes to TV, less is not more.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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