Cable choice now

Posted: Feb 17, 2006 10:05 PM

The "cable choice" initiative continues to gather momentum. Increasing numbers of public policy organizations, political leaders, and even telecommunications companies are endorsing the very simple concept that consumers should take and pay for only that which they want on cable television, rather than having to continue subsidizing programming they find offensive or just plain lousy.

 As to be expected, the cable industry is fighting back, with everything it's got. The problem is that it has very little, and is now reduced to argumentation that flirts with the bizarre.

 First the industry claimed that technology limitations prevented cable choice. This was proven to be false with the arrival of powerful new digital set-top boxes. Then they argued that cable choice actually threatened the public interest because it would ruin programming diversity: Networks cancelled would mean networks bankrupted. High School Economics 101 answered that: How would the public interest be threatened if the public wasn't interested enough to subscribe to The Dune Buggy Network?

 Then someone recommended "family tiers" as a compromise. Rather than pure cable choice, the cable companies could bundle a special family-friendly grouping of networks and offer them to families alarmed by the filth being put in front of their children. The cable industry balked, said the technology didn't exist, which technology they miraculously discovered a couple of weeks later when Congress threatened them with cable choice legislation.

 Perhaps the most cynical response from the cable industry was its announcement last fall that it would spend a whopping $250 million to teach parents to be more responsible in the wake of Hollywood's excesses by learning how to block offensive networks. Their generosity was limited, however. Parents still would be required to subsidize those networks through their monthly cable bills.

 Their loudest argument all along was that cable rates would increase with competition, and pointed to a 2004 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) study that said so. It being discovered that said report was funded by the cable giant Comcast, new FCC head Kevin Martin called for a new, independent review. The results have just been released. Cable rates could go down as much as 13 percent with cable choice.

 Besides which, since when did the cable industry ever care about high cable rates for consumers? While the Consumer Price Index increased in the five-year period from 1999 to 2003 at an annual rate of 2.4 percent (or an aggregate hike of 12.6 percent), basic cable rates rose at an annual rate of 7.5 percent (or 43.5 percent in the aggregate).

 The cable industry is officially out of gas. Or are they?

 They now have a new line of attack. And I think we should hear them out, don't you? The Oxygen network is one of those that has complained that cable choice will put it out of business, a proposition certain to send shudders down the spines of its dozens of fans. Now Oxygen Media chairman Geraldine Laybourne is back with another argument: "TV viewers don't know what they want to watch until it's there for them as an option."

 The silly, ignorant consumer. Just what will he, or she, be missing with cable choice? Ms. Laybourne tells us, and I swear to God I'm not making this up: "Who would have known to subscribe to Bravo to watch 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' prior to it airing?"

 Laybourne is using an awfully odd show as an example, the one program that's likely to cause more viewers to opt out of Bravo than any other, unless the consumer is attracted to this show's brand of ribald references, like wondering whether home stains were caused by male bodily fluids.

 But Laybourne didn't need to stop at "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Thanks to her industry's commitment to diversity, and options, 18 million cable households -- check your dial, this could mean you -- also now are subsidizing Viacom's gay channel Logo, another network they'd never otherwise have the forced opportunity to enjoy with cable choice.

 On the weekend before Valentine's Day, Logo premiered a new documentary called "Beautiful Daughters." It's about the first all-transgendered production of the play "The Vagina Monologues." 

 The FCC has given parents concrete evidence that giving cable choice to consumers is feasible and affordable, despite all the cable industry's millions in lobbying and buckets of excuses. Sen. John McCain, who claims to have the support of 40 national organizations, is offering legislation to mandate it. It's time for the cable moguls to offer some version of unbundled programming for viewers who want it.

 No more excuses. No more dodges. And please, no more arguments like Ms. Laybourne's.