Conservatives Seek a la Carte Revival

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Washington — Nearly two-dozen conservative organizations are hoping to revive the cable a la carte issue in Congress.

The per-channel sale of pay-TV channels is popular with family and morality groups, who view a la carte as the most effective means of keeping racy content out of homes with children.

The campaign begun last week was designed to put pressure on Congress to pass a law that would require cable and satellite companies to sell channels on an individual basis and at reasonable prices.

CABLE'S OBJECTIONS

The cable industry is strongly opposed to a la carte mandates, claiming they would raise rates and bump off niche and specialty channels that can't survive outside the traditional tiering structure.

Despite a pair of federal studies that largely reinforced cable's arguments, the industry has been unable to shake groups on the right that don't want to see family friendly programming bundled with cable channels specializing in edgy fare.

“We feel very, very strongly about reigniting this topic on Capitol Hill this week and this Congress,” said Lanier Swann, director of government affairs for Concerned Women for America. “Above all else, families want choice put back into their hands. It is not up to cable companies to control exactly what is being pumped into the homes. It is up to the families.”

CWA kicked off the new a la carte push last Wednesday in a media conference call with representatives from Citizens for Community Values, the Parents Television Council and Morality in Media.

A day later, 23 groups endorsed a full-page cable a la carte advertisement that ran in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper read by members of Congress and their aides. The ad accused cable companies of “forcing American families to pay for indecent and immoral programming while raising the cost of our subscriptions to subsidize it.”

Cable subscribers generally need to buy a package that includes dozens of channel catering to a range of interests. Parents have to call the cable company or use blocking technology to prevent children from viewing indecent and inappropriate content found in large packages.

“We believe we should have the right to … choose the cable channels that come into our home, rather than being forced to take them and then call the cable company and have them block it out,” said Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, an adviser to Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family.

In May, top National Cable & Telecommunications Association members agreed to fund a $250-million TV advertising campaign intended to raise parental awareness of blocking technology available from cable operators.

NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz said a la carte requirements “will offer no benefit to the vast majority of consumers and will, in fact, result in higher prices, less choices and less diversity in programming.”

The Parents Television Council and Morality in Media support a la carte because they consider it the easiest way for parents to police what their kids are watching.

“It's a top priority for us that cable choice should be at the top of the national dialogue in terms of what is allowed in the home,” said Dan Isett, PTC's director of corporate and government affairs.

MARTIN, MCCAIN VIEWS

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin has called on cable to provide more a la carte options or a family friendly tier. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has urged cable to conduct a la carte trials but none have been announced.

Earlier this year, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced a bill that would require creation of a “child-friendly” programming tier in lieu of a la carte.

The a la carte issue flared last year when Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) wanted to attach an amendment to pending satellite television legislation. Under Deal's amendment, programmers were required to wholesale their channels a la carte but pay-TV distributors were not required to retail them outside the tiering structure.

In a political compromise, Deal withdrew his amendment after senior members of House Energy and Commerce Committee agreed to ask the FCC to study all economic angles to the a la carte issue.

In November, the FCC's lengthy report concluded that imposing a la carte mandates on cable would be highly disruptive, with consumers paying much more each month just to maintain the same level of service.

For example, the FCC found that the average cable customer had 17 favorite channels, including local TV stations. The agency determined that in a la carte market structure, the price of nine channels bought individually would equal the price of expanded basic, a package that includes dozens of channels and purchased by 95% of cable homes.

As a result, the cable home that wanted to continue having access to its favorite 17 channels would pay 14% to 30% more in an a la carte world, the FCC said. The agency said that buying a tier and blocking offensive content was less costly than a la carte.

In October 2003, the Government Accountability Office produced an a la carte report requested by McCain when he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The GAO concluded that a la carte was hardly a panacea. While a la carte might expand consumer choice, the GAO said it would hurt channels that thrive because of tiering and would require consumers to buy or lease set-top equipment to view a la carte options on multiple TV sets.

Since late 1992, the federal government has been allowed to supervise local price regulation of the basic programming tier. The cable industry has questioned whether Congress can force the a la carte sale of channels in a manner consistent with the First Amendment.

EQUALITY AND LEGALITY

Bob Peters, president of Morality in Media, indicated that mandated a la carte would be legal if applied to all channels without regard to content and if pay-TV providers weren't precluded from offering tiers.

“An a la carte law would presumably cover all channels, which means that it would not be based on content,” Peters said. “I can't imagine an a la carte law that would prevent cable operators from offering packages of channels. That wouldn't have to come to an end.”

Pay-TV providers could undermine an a la carte law by pricing a la carte channels so high that consumers automatically purchased tiers instead.

Peters acknowledged that Congress would have to respond by authorizing the FCC to regulate rates so that a la carte prices represented a realistic offering.

“[Congress] could empower the FCC to determine whether a la carte channels were being offered on a reasonable basis,” Peters said. “If the cable companies act in good faith, I don't think there is going to be a need for government regulation.”

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