Martin Pushes 'Carte’ on Hill

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Washington— Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said in House testimony last Tuesday that he would support legislation forcing cable operators to allow consumers to purchase programming both on an a la carte basis and in packages consisting of just a handful of channels.

An a la carte system, Martin explained, would liberate consumers from having to pay for cable channels that don’t interest them.

“I think that if the cable operators won’t allow for consumers to have some more control over how much they are having to pay for cable then I do think that something should end up being done,” Martin said, according to a transcript obtained by Multichannel News.

Martin addressed the issue during questioning by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who asked whether a la carte mandates were now appropriate, since cable operators rejected pressure from Martin to discontinue selling their most popular programming services, such as CNN and ESPN, only 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 the 40-year-old Bush appointee has been emphasizing since he became chairman in March 2005.

In comments rejected by the cable industry, Martin, who has complained about indecent cable programming, said an a la carte model “would significantly lower cable rates across the country and I think that it would allow for consumers to have more control over the content they’re bringing in the home.”

Martin testified that an a la carte law was justified because nominal cable rates keep rising and because consumers who tend to watch 15 to 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 regime on U.S. cable operators without a change in the law.

“I think it would require some kind of a change in the federal law to end up requiring some kind of smaller packages and I think that there [are] many ways that that could end up being done and, as I said, they’re doing it in Canada today,” he said.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association vice president of communications Brian Dietz repeated the trade group’s long-standing 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.

“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.

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