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Cable's menu isn't always appetizing.

Cable TV companies across the country consistently brag about their 500 channels of program fare, while most subscribers wish they could reduce the options to the several dozen channels they might actually watch.

Is it really necessary to have all those jewelry auction, televangelist and hip-hop music channels that are a major part of our cable TV fare? Who actually signed us up for this massive wasteland of screened nonsense that we must surf by to get to the sports and news channels that we actually care about?

"I think we use no more than 20 cable channels at my house," said Mayor Jim Hobbs of Sunset Hills, a suburb southwest of St. Louis. "We watch the news channels, the sports channels and the History Channel. The kids are all grown and gone, so a lot of stuff is just not watched.

"I would like to see the cable company offer some choice--a selection of what is actually used," Hobbs said. "I would like to see the economics of that discussed at our city's next cable franchise renewal meeting."

FCC (Federal Communications Commission) Chairman Kevin Martin would like to come to the rescue on this cable conundrum. Martin said late last year that he thinks cable companies should stop forcing people to subscribe to bunches of channels. Instead, Martin thinks the industry should give cable consumers a la carte options.

Martin, FCC chairman since last spring, contends that a la carte pricing could lower surging cable bills. Martin also believes a la carte would allow parents much more control over programming they find offensive for younger viewers.

In a recent Senate forum on the issue of indecency and television media, Martin cited a new FCC report that "concludes that purchasing cable programming in a more a la carte manner, in fact, could be economically feasible and in consumers' best interests."

The "a la carte ideas" Martin has cooked up at the FCC have cable TV officials steaming, including some based at the regional headquarters of Charter Communications in Des Peres. Charter is the major player in cable television in the bi-state region.

Charter cable responds

"In terms of a la carte, this has really all bubbled up because of concerns about children viewing objectionable material on cable," said Dave Andersen, vice president for communications for Charter. "It is our contention that the tools are already in place to protect young people, whether it's a V-chip or a setting on the digital set-top box. Consumers already have a choice on this."

Andersen said the cable company is looking at new bundles of channels to sell as a package, such as a family package. Andersen argued that a la carte channel subscriptions would be more costly in the long run because of the technology and bureaucracy required.

Both programmers and advertisers would have major objections to an a la carte system, with the result that it would actually drive up consumer costs if put in place, according to Andersen.

"It's like a restaurant offering a cheap All-American breakfast," Andersen said. "You can actually get the full breakfast cheap and choose to eat what you want. Whereas, if you have everybody selecting this and that, it gets to the point that people have to pay more for less."

Sharifah Williams, public relations manager for the local Charter office, said programmers want as much access to audience as possible, and will lower costs accordingly. She said narrowing the potential audience with a la carte selection can only drive costs up, which would be passed along in subscription fees.

David Honig, executive director of Washington, D.C.'s Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, argues that "a la carte" would diminish our intellectual and cultural life delivered via cable.

Honig argues that under a la carte, new channels featuring gospel music, international culture or African-American movies would never get off the ground. Without the daily exposure that comes with channel surfing, it would take such new channels decades to attract the millions of loyal viewers they'd need to recoup the costs of producing high-quality programming for a national audience.

Washington, D.C., issue

A 2004 FCC study indicated that the average cable household watches 17 channels when 88 are available. Under a proposed a la carte system, households would have to subscribe to a basic tier that includes regular broadcast. Beyond that, they could reject controversial channels such as MTV or Comedy Central and pay only for the channels that they want.

The FCC could push Congress to take action on an a la carte initiative this session. The initiative could draw Capitol Hill attention as Congress debates new legislation involving indecency and the media.

"This is pretty much a Washington matter to my knowledge," Andersen said. "We are not hearing much about it at the local level. We have franchise renewal agreements with every community that we serve. Those renewals come frequently and regularly."

In the St. Louis area, most city council and board meetings have not attracted large numbers of consumers when cable franchise renewals have been on the agenda. At most, the meetings have attracted a scattering of complaints about installation or cable repair service problems or subscription fee hikes.

Area mayors contacted for this story said they would like the a la carte cable subscription idea to be on the city meeting agenda next time the cable franchise agreement is up for renewal.

Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda said a la carte is "an idea whose time has come." He said if cable companies have the technology to offer so many channels, they ought to also have the technology to permit catering to individual household needs.

"The next time we are at cable franchise renewal, all the options should be on the table," Swoboda said. "There needs to be much more of a conversation going on between the consumers and the provider. I hope the council chamber is packed full when this comes up for discussion again."

Bert Gates, mayor of Shrewsbury, which borders the city of St. Louis, agreed with other mayors that an a la carte cable channel subscription program would best serve customers.

"I do think it would give our citizens a better selection system for what they want to pay for," Gates said. "Our franchise agreement doesn't come before the city until 2008, but we talk to the Charter representative periodically. I think this option should be on the table."
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Title Annotation:Federal Communications Commission's a la carte
Author:Corrigan, Don
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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