Choice in Cable Channels? Debate Heats Up. ; Minorities and Christians Raise Concerns That Individual Channel Pricing Will End Their Programs

Article excerpt

With everyone from consumer groups and minority organizations watching closely, Congress is poised to decide whether to enter a roiling debate over cable and satellite bills.

At issue is whether paying for TV channels should be like shopping at the supermarket, where customers choose the products they purchase, or like buying a newspaper, which comes packaged with the same sports, business, and comics sections regardless of whether readers want them all.

It's hardly a minor debate in a country where more than 90 million people subscribe to cable and satellite TV, with many forced to pay for dozens of channels regardless of how many they watch.

Customers do have the ability to program their cable boxes to block out specific channels such as "F/X, which broadcasts the raunchy plastic surgery soap opera "Nip/Tuck." But some say blocking isn't enough, and they're calling for greater channel control.

"I do believe that something needs to be done," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin told a Senate committee in November, touting the feasibility of so-called "a la carte" systems - offering a full thumbs-up/thumbs-down choice of individual channels - and "family-friendly" channel packages. If cable operators do nothing, he threatened, "basic indecency and profanity restrictions may be a viable alternative."

But Democratic politicians and Christian broadcasters are crying foul. They are concerned that a wide expansion of channel choice could raise cable and satellite prices and spell the end of small networks targeted toward niche audiences.

Last month, behemoth cable companies Time Warner and Comcast responded to pressure by offering an alternative to a la carte: "family-friendly tiers," packages of channels without explicit content, which customers can buy instead of the entire cable channel lineup.

The packages cost between $31 and $35 a month and include access to local channels as well as a special tier of "G-rated" entertainment, news, and public affairs channels such as the Disney Channel and CNN Headline News. Together, Comcast and Time Warner have about 32 million subscribers.

The question now facing Congress: Is this enough?

It is indeed, argue cable operators, who say full channel choice will result in extra costs for customers, who already pay an average of $40 each month for "extended basic cable" which usually includes between 70 and 80 channels.

"Under an a la carte plan, that same $40 would probably result in a handful of channels, fewer than 10," says Brian Dietz, spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, an industry trade group in Washington. …


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