Senators sent a very unsubtle message to cable Thurs: Watch your step. While several members of the Commerce Committee praised market forces over regulation, cable was repeatedly urged to find ways to ‘voluntarily’ rein in prices and provide consumers with more choice. Trent Lott (R-MS) said cable "better listen to the constituents or you’re going to get in trouble." While he and other senators praised C-SPAN and the "tremendous job" cable’s done, Lott spoke of consumer frustration. "They’re going to holler at us, we’re going to take it out on you." (Judging by the number of senators at the hearing and its nearly 3-hr duration, plenty of constituents must be hollering already.) Programmers also absorbed blows, as ESPN’s George Bodenheimer faced inquiries about rising sports costs. Predictably, he said forcing ESPN and others off expanded basic would be a "consumer disaster." Commerce chmn John McCain (R-AZ) tried to use Cox’s [COX] fight with ESPN to support his a la carte argument-a proposal few of his colleagues seem to support. McCain quoted Jim Robbins from a hearing last May (before the programming fight turned to battling Web sites and ads) as supporting tiers for higher priced services, such as ESPN. "’Let us let the consumer choose if they want to pay for that high-priced service or not,’" McCain quoted Robbins as saying. Then he asked, "When did you find yourself on the road to Damascus?" (Note to McCain: Tiering and a la carte are 2 different ballparks.) The Cox chief responded: "My efforts last spring to move ESPN, the highest-priced service we have, to a tier were meant to get the attention of the Walt Disney Co and bring them to reasonable levels of prices. We were … successful…[the problems] are not totally fixed." As for Wed’s YES-Cablevision [CVC] ruling, McCain called it "another blow" to customer choice. — NCTA wasn’t invited to testify. After the session it issued a terse statement: "We are sensitive to the concerns expressed at the hearing, but it was clear that members of the committee recognized the economic investment in infrastructure, programming and customer service that the cable industry has made."

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