Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said he has no plans to retreat from his quest to pressure the cable industry into adopting an a la carte business model.
“Absolutely, I am still enthusiastic about it. I absolutely think it’s the right thing,” Martin said in testimony last Wednesday before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.
Martin recited his anti-cable litany to justify government intervention: Rising nominal tier rates and the inability of consumers to opt out of large programming packages.
As Martin acknowledged once again Wednesday, the FCC is powerless to force cable operators to break up their tiers.
Instead, Martin has the FCC poised to regulate some contract terms and conditions between cable operators and their programming suppliers.
Over the past few days, Martin has been auditioning a proposal under which cable operators would have the right to eject from expanded basic any cable network that demanded a monthly license fee in excess of a certain amount.
Martin has floated 75 cents as the ceiling, a level that could clearly threaten ESPN’s home on expanded basic.
Martin’s forceful comments demonstrated again that almost no amount of political pressure is enough to get him to back away from his a la carte agenda.
On Tuesday, Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee, in addition to a second GOP member from the same panel, told Martin face-to-face that he needed to subordinate his personal battles with the cable industry to the vastly more important goal of effecting a smooth transition to all-digital broadcasting in February 2009.
Asked on Wednesday whether he would honor those requests, Martin said he disagreed with the premise that he had been told to drop his a la carte agenda.
“The commission is going to continue to consider everything in the proceedings in front of us,” Martin told reporters on Capitol Hill, adding that he didn’t know when he would try to pass wholesale a la carte rules. “I don’t have a particular time frame for comment for you.”
Rep. C.A “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.) told Martin a la carte could raise cable rates and lead to the demise of channels aimed at minorities.
“That’s the other side of your a la carte,” he said.
Martin testified that a la carte would provider financial relief to Spanish-speaking viewers because they wouldn’t need to buy unnecessary English programming to reach, for example, ESPN Deportes.
“Right now, they have to buy ESPN in English in the basic part of the package before they are allowed to buy ESPN in Spanish,” Martin asserted. “I don’t understand why they should have to do that.”
Katina Arnold, ESPN vice president of communications, said her company would support inclusion of ESPN Deportes in the most widely purchased tiers.
“We don’t set cable tiers. We would love to see ESPN Deportes on expanded basic,” she said.