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Purchasing Cable TV à la Carte
December 5, 2005

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

A group of media executives, government regulators, consumer activists and televangelists recently gathered in a Washington, D.C., hearing room to participate in what was billed as an "Open Forum on Decency." Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens hosted the event.

The future of cable TV was the subject of the day, with conservatives seeking a way to deal with some of the questionable content that is being shown on many of the cable channels.

Public airwaves are not the vehicle of transmission for cable programming, so operators are exempt from regulations and FCC indecency fines. Consequently, there are several bills pending in Congress that seek to address public concern over the cable indecency issue.

Senator Stevens let it be known that if the cable industry does not take action to help concerned parents, Congress will.

Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Kevin Martin suggested an à la carte purchasing option as a means of giving parents more control over cable and satellite programming. With such an option in place, cable subscribers would no longer be compelled to purchase channels in bundles but would instead be able to buy whatever they so desired on a personal preference basis.

For example, one could call up his or her local cable company and sign up for the Fox News and Discovery Channels while passing on TV Guide, Travel and Toon. Or one might opt to include Headline News and Court TV while excluding the Game Show and Outdoor Life Networks.

Interestingly, the proposal has been well received by conservatives and consumers but not by the cable industry. Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., called the à la carte pricing concept "a very dangerous idea."

Critics of channel choice suggest that because channels might charge more to cable systems for their inclusion, price increases for consumers may result.

But Martin claimed that offering programs à la carte instead of in bundled packages would actually have the effect of lowering cable bills by about 2 percent.

Some faith-based conservatives are dissatisfied with the proposed plan. Religious broadcasters have found themselves at odds with anti-indecency groups. Televangelists like the Reverends Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell naturally seek to protect their market shares and are concerned that without bundling many folks may say adieu to their shows.

Two companies that are cozying up to the idea of cable channel choice are Cablevision Systems Corp. (provider for New York City) and AT&T. AT&T reportedly plans to start selling video services soon and, like Cablevision, is presently supportive of à la carte selections.

An FCC study showed that on average, people watch only 17 of the more than 100 cable channels they typically receive. Selling channels individually instead of in packages may end up driving out of business some channels that are unable to attract sufficient advertising.

Should channels that people do not watch in enough numbers be kept on the air by an industry-wide bundling practice? Should programming that is incapable of standing on its own be subsidized, in effect, by a packaging arrangement?

It strikes me that rather than being "a very dangerous idea," the à la carte approach is essentially a very free-market thing to do.

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Copyright © 2005
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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