Copps Mulling Wholesale A La Carte Mandates

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Washington -- Federal Communications Commission Democrat Michael Copps said Tuesday he was still debating whether to force cable programmers to wholesale channels on an individual basis to cable and satellite TV operators.

“I think we're having a lot of meetings with a lot folks to understand exactly what is involved. I think we all understand some of the problems that creates,” Copps told reporters in his FCC office. “I’m trying to get a full understanding of both sides of the issue before we opine much further on it.”

FCC chairman Kevin Martin, egged on by small cable operators, is proposing rules that would deny the Walt Disney Co., for example, from bundling ESPN2 and ESPNEWS in a package with other Disney-affiliated networks and offering the whole thing to distributors on a take-it-or-leave it basis.

Copps’s tentative approach for now could be encouraging to cable because he has been an eager participant in Martin’s extensive anti-cable agenda. Martin went after cable starting in late 2005 after the industry refused to allow consumers to buy all cable channels on an a la carte basis.

Copps indicated that he was sympathetic toward the American Cable Association’s concern that large program providers effectively force pay-TV distributors to license more channels than they want to buy, with carriage of cable channels tied to permission to carry local TV stations.

“Do folks seem to have legitimate arguments, smaller operators about the cost of these [channels]? Yes,” Copps said. “So I think we need to do something.” But Copps did not say that by “something” he meant wholesale a la carte mandates.

Requiring wholesale unbundling without FCC regulation of the per-channel prices would seem susceptible to evasion, especially because programmers could defend their bundling strategy by charging exorbitant a la carte rates.

To the extent the FCC imposed wholesale a la carte, Copps said he believed it could be done without price controls.

“I guess it depends on how your craft the rules. I would imagine it’s within the ability of us to craft some rules that wouldn’t necessarily go to regulating price by price,” Copps said.

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