New Orleans -- 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, revealed that he supports a la carte choices for cable customers.
"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 to lead to less choice 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 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 a la carte critics have noted that cable operators could guarantee continued high expanded-basic subscribership 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."