Martin Endorses a la Carte Legislation

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Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said in House testimony Tuesday on Capitol Hill that he would support legislation forcing cable operators to allow consumers to purchase more programming on an individual or a la carte basis, an FCC official said.

Martin addressed the issue during questioning by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who asked whether a la carte mandates were appropriate now since cable operators rejected pressure from Martin and have continued to sell their most popular programming services, such as CNN and ESPN, in packages with dozens of channels.

Martin was testifying on the FCC's fiscal-2008-budget request before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government when Regula sought his input on a policy matter Martin has been emphasizing since becoming chairman in March 2005.

The FCC official said Martin testified that an a la carte law was justified because nominal cable rates kept rising and because consumers who tend to watch 15-17 channels still need to buy dozens of channels they don't want in order to see their favorites.

Martin, who praised a la carte options available to Canadian cable subscribers, told Regula the FCC can't force an a la carte on U.S. cable operators without a change in the law, the FCC official said.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association vice president of communications Brian Dietz repeated the trade group's longstanding opposition to government intervention that would force an a la carte business model on the industry.

“It's unfortunate that chairman Martin continues to promote government-mandated a la carte when the vast majority of evidence shows that it would raise prices for most consumers and harm diversity in programming. The Canadian example that chairman Martin cites has nothing to do with the U.S. market and actually offers fewer benefits than portrayed," Dietz said in a prepared statement.

The NCTA has consistently argued that the traditional tiering structure gives networks aimed at women and minorities a chance to find an audience in a cost-efficient manner by keeping marketing costs at reasonable levels.

"Chairman Martin’s advocacy of per-channel charges before a House Subcommittee this morning is most unfortunate. Minority leaders and the civil-rights community generally have near universally determined that per-channel-charges, or a la carte pricing, could squeeze out of the marketplace the next generation of minority programmers and networks," said Alex Nogales, spokesman for the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

Martin's House testimony wasn't the first time he endorsed a la carte legislation.

Last year, he backed a bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), which, in general terms, would have eliminated local and state cable-system franchising and reduced franchise-fee payments as rewards to cable operators that either sold channels a la carte or promised to do so, depending on the ownership relationship between the cable operator and the programming networks.

Last June, McCain offered his bill (S. 3457) as an amendment to pending telecommunications legislation before the Republican-controlled Senate Commerce Committee. It was defeated 20-2 -- a bipartisan rejection of an incentives-based approach to the a la carte issue.

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