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
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. …