Cox Communications Inc. Washington, D.C., lobbyist Sandy Wilson asked Kenneth Ferree of the Federal Communications Commission a simple question.
“OK, Ken,” she began. “What do you think of a la carte?”
To the astonishment of many in the audience at the National Show here, Ferree, chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, disclosed that he supports allowing cable customers to purchase basic programming services on an individual basis.
“I am a fan of a la carte. I’ll be an unabashed fan of a la carte,” he said.
Ferree added that cable-industry arguments that a la carte would lead to fewer choices and higher cable bills were debatable.
“There are many good arguments for why it wouldn’t work. I’m just not convinced [that they are correct],” Ferree said.
Ferree’s comments stood out at a convention where cable leader after cable leader complained that a la carte mandates would lead to higher cable bills and lessened programming choice, destroying a business model developed by market forces over 30 years.
FCC chairman Michael Powell declined to endorse Ferree’s remarks.
“I haven’t studied it enough. I’m an unabashed fan of the Redskins. I don’t know about policy choices,” Powell said.
Ferree did not say that he supported government-mandated a la carte — an approach favored by Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.).
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) supports voluntary a la carte, while House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) is giving cable’s free channel-blocking approach to indecency some time to work.
Some critics of a la carte have said cable operators could guarantee continued high expanded-basic customer counts by charging unreasonable prices for a la carte channels, raising the question of whether the FCC would have to regulate a la carte prices.
Ferree said he doubted that cable consumers would actually face unreasonable a la carte rates.
“It probably could be gamed through clever pricing mechanisms,” he said. “There are some subtle ways this could not work out. I think actually, in the marketplace, you would probably be fine.”