"Unbundling" Cable Channels: An Opportunity for Selectivity

Posted: Apr 19, 2007 12:01 AM

Most of the news this week has been so horrendous that I thought I'd write about something positive. There is one of those subjects being discussed again in Washington on which nearly everyone is in agreement. It is a consumer issue that is important to families and to the free-market economy. Most surprising is that is if a law were to be passed by Congress that would mandate this change of policy it would be welcomed by the left and the right and have bipartisan support.

Few issues are genuinely nonpolitical and good news for both sides of the political aisle but this is one of them. I'm speaking of what has come to be known as "Cable Choice" or a la carte television programming. This is when a consumer or a family chooses which cable stations it wants or does not want, and is not forced to pay for cable channels never viewed or which should not be available to children.

Basic cable service has become almost mandatory. The older citizen with the TV on a stand and an aerial on top is a vanishing species inasmuch as there is no reception anymore without cable. And though the days of free TV are long past, the "basic" cable package, which runs at around $10 a month, is not the problem. The problem is that the consumer must pay an additional $30-60 and take an additional 80 channels when he or she only may want a few.

As Tim Winter, Executive Director of the Parents' Television Council, wrote:

"With the exception of cable television, no other media sector requires a customer to purchase a product he/she does not want - or that he/she may even find harmful or offensive - in order to consume a product that he/she does want. When you go to the ten-theater Cineplex to watch a movie, are you forced also to pay for the other nine movies you're not there to watch?"

Not surprisingly, the cable companies do not agree. Bundling cable channels together has been their bread and butter and now they have income from cable Internet as well. Lots of money for lots of lawyers and lobbyists. They have insisted for many years that unbundling is impractical if not impossible even though it works quite well in other countries, such as Canada. Several studies, including one by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), have shown that an average family subscribing to a premium cable package with 60-80 channels only watches about 17 of them regularly. The cable companies and their lobbyists tried several other arguments to show the downside of this simple proposition, including their belief that cable prices would rise if they had to sell each channel individually. (Presumably, the companies did not explain how even without cable choice, the average family's monthly cable bill has risen at more than twice the rate of inflation, by nearly 90% since 1995.)

In 2004, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced a reversal of previous FCC policy. Armed with a recent study showing that cable costs would rise from 14-30% at most under a la carte, Martin suggested cable and satellite companies could and should begin implementing cable choice. In 2006, Senator John S. Mc Cain II (R-AZ) introduced legislation that would have allowed cable and satellite companies to compete nationally (instead of just locally) in exchange for implementing this consumer friendly policy. The CHOICE Act, as it was know, was introduced with much fanfare in May of 2006. It died in committee.

This is the time to bring it back. With gas and oil prices on the rise for the second year and electricity about to double in certain parts of the country, there is one bit of good news for consumers. Your cable bill could be cut in half and you won't be forced to subscribe to MTV just to get Disney and Nickelodeon if the Congress would act in your behalf.

There is often a much better chance of accomplishing a goal if two sides normally in opposition advance it together. And this is an issue upon which many of our traditional family groups, including Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council, find themselves in agreement with consumer advocates and children's rights organizations, who have been telling us for years that too much television -- especially the violent sort that's infused with explicit language -- is not good for anyone. Adults can choose to watch it if they wish, but it adds insult to injury to make us pay for something we do not want.