Consumer Choices There is always a "consumer" angle on just about any proposal for legislation, regulation or just hand-wringing and chain rattling in Washington. You know, "…if we don’t do this, the consumers of America will be harmed." Or "…the big conglomerates are just taking it out on the consumer." It gets tiresome because of course everyone, in one way or another is a consumer, and when regulations are written, they inevitably choose sides. The proponents may think they have chosen the "consumer" side, but way too often unintended consequences have the opposite result. The reality is that most of the time the argument is over "consumer choices," and what that means is not as simple as you might at first think. Cable is often on the wrong side of the "consumer choice" argument in political circles, even though we offer more choices than most. The claim, however, is that we are the "monopoly" and therefore we have limited consumer choice by how we put program packages together (thus the call for a la carte) or how we choose which programmers to put on (thus the call for program access rules or, indeed, common carrier status). But if you look around at the competitive telecommunications and electronics marketplace, you will notice that there are lots of examples of the consumer having choice but not total control. For instance, if you want to play video games, you have a choice of the X-Box, the Playstation or Wii—but the games you get to play are limited to the ones written for that device, and the devices are not compatible. The consumer can choose, but if the consumer wants to switch, he or she has to buy new equipment, new games, etc. Now, consumers seem to be able to understand this and handle it very well. In the growing market for high definition DVD players, there are two formats. Again, the consumer has to choose. Blu-Ray or HD-DVD? Fox and MGM have just decided to side with the first format, Paramount and DreamWorks went the other way. But you don’t hear any federal officials (or consumer lobbying groups) demanding that the government step in and require only one format, or require all programmers to make their products available to all formats. Choice seems to be OK in this area of video too. For some reason, however, when it comes to television (actually only cable television), those choices are suddenly deemed to be bad. Why? The feds have marched in and said we have to offer a single format that all television sets can use (the CableCARD debacle). The feds have marched in and said we have to carry all local broadcast stations if they demand it. We have to sell the broadcast tier before consumers have the choice of buying other tiers, and so on. Why? Why can’t we be dealt with the same way satellite multichannel program delivery companies are? They can tier the broadcast channels, and charge for them separately for those who want them. Consumer choice. They can have different, incompatible equipment, and consumers seem to be able to deal with that reality. Consumer choice. Why is it that the federal government seems to think the only area where consumer choice is not a good idea is cable? I’ll be looking into this a lot more in some upcoming columns. I think it goes back to old history and an unwillingness to acknowledge that the world has changed. Time to make that clear, so consumers can get some new choices.

The Daily

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