We’ve been reading a lot this past week about a few members of Congress wanting cable to be required to offer all channels "a la carte". Actually, there’s a lot of good news behind those headlines. Senator McCain, who will be stepping down as the Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee soon, managed to raise the issue in a well-publicized hearing. What was just as significant was that the cable industry’s explanation of why this is a very bad idea for consumers has also gotten through. Influential senators raised the unsettling prospect that mandatory a la carte would reduce, not increase program diversity. There was a clear indication that even the politicians understood that a la carte would reduce, sometimes to zero, the broad exposure of new or different ideas. And they grasped the potential for economic disaster that mandatory, across-the-board a la carte might wreak on cable, DBS, "niche" channels, and particularly new programmers. It’s notable that we didn’t have to point out that a newspaper would not survive if it had to market its sports section separately from its international news, or the obits separately from the food section. They did. And there was little sympathy for the idea that if you don’t read the newspaper’s sports section you, as a buyer of the pre-packaged newspaper, deserve a rebate. The work that has been done over the years by the NCTA, the programmers, and cable companies quietly explaining these issues is finally starting to pay off. With the exception of the Consumer’s Union, everyone else seems to understand that broad-brush mandatory a la carte sales of all cable channels would probably hurt, not help consumers in the long run. As a matter of fact, after the hearing last week, even Senator McCain acknowledged that for his plan to "work" – meaning someone could buy individual channels and what they bought would actually be less expensive than the buffet already offered by cable – it would probably require extensive regulation by the government of the rates charged on a channel-by-channel basis! Talk about disasters! CU’s Gene Kimmelman backed off and suggested a "test". Force a la carte just on digital programming, where the technical problems and upgrade costs of the current cable infrastructure would be avoided. But if you want to do that, the logical place to "test" would be DBS – where consumers have already paid for digital boxes. Maybe the reason it wasn’t suggested is that some DBS providers tried to do a la carte years ago, as did the "C-Band" satellite folks. The business model failed. Let’s remember, even the GAO studied the likely success of mandatory a la carte and said it would not help consumers and may lead to a reduction in diversity. The only reason a la carte program mandates have any currency in Washington today is because of the issue du jour (or election cycle) of indecency. Mandatory a la carte is not needed to respond to that issue. The cable industry has already done so by launching an excellent, comprehensive campaign to remind our customers that they don’t have to "eat" everything offered at the buffet. More important, that they have ways to block out anything they don’t want – and we will provide that capability without additional charge. So we already offer, in essence, an "a la carte buffet". What our customers want, when they want it. Make sure they know that, and this subject will go away, as it should.

The Daily


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