In a confrontation with some of cable's toughest critics in Congress, ESPN president George Bodenheimer told a Senate panel Thursday that he would not endorse proposals that call for offering the sports channel on an a la carte basis.
"It would be a consumer disaster for Congress to force ESPN and other channels out of the expanded-basic lineup," Bodenheimer told the Senate Commerce Committee. "A la carte would force consumers to pay more for their programming and to rent or buy set-top boxes they don't now need or want."
Some lawmakers, including Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), are pressuring cable to embrace a la carte in order to give consumers more options than just a large bundle of programming with nominal rates that keep rising faster than inflation.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) put it as bluntly as possible: Consumers, he said, would get a la carte programming one way or another.
"I am not prepared to mandate or regulate rates now or a la carte options, but if you don't do something about it, we will," Lott warned. He has threatened cable before, but without following through.
Cox Communications Inc. CEO James Robbins also objected to a la carte, calling it an economic model that "results in higher prices and fewer program choices."
McCain -- probably the Senate's most vocal a la carte proponent -- accused cable of having it both ways by opposing must-carry and a la carte. Cable companies, he explained, deny consumers a la carte while wanting it for themselves in selecting local TV stations to carry.
"I encourage the industry to find a consistent message for itself: If they want choices, provide the same choices for your customers," McCain said.
After the hearing, McCain acknowledged that a la carte prices would need to be monitored, and perhaps even regulated, to ensure that consumers didn't opt for the tier by default because a la carte channels were priced at unreasonably high levels.