Cable industry: Look, our family menu
Offering Congress an alternative to a la carte
December 13, 2005
Mention a la carte in Washington, and most people’s thoughts turn to dinner. The cable industry’s thoughts turn to panic.
A la carte is a thinly veiled code word for Congress’s lastest stratagem for forcing the industry to cleanse its channels of sex and violence. Under a la carte, consumers would be able to subscribe to individual channels, rather than the full load of basic channels. It would mean economic mayhem for cable providers.
Yesterday, intent on siderailing al a carte, a representative for six major cable operators appeared before Congress to propose a new cable offering, a family tier of programming. Subscribers would received only networks with squeaky clean, or nearly squeaky clean, programming.
The move by the cable industry, led by Time Warner and Comcast, would effectively negate any call or need for a la carte, while essentially ending any push to regulate cable in the fashion of the broadcast networks.
At first blush, it looks like it worked. Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and an open critic of sex and violence on TV, promptly issued a statement:
“For several years, I have been urging the cable and satellite industry to give parents additional tools to help them address the increasing amount of coarse programming on television. Offering a family-friendly package has always been one of the options I supported.”
That cable industry’s family plan would put family-friendly networks such as Nickelodeon, Disney and the like all into one package while eliminating usual cable package stalwarts such as MTV and FX, which many parents do not want their kids exposed to.
The plan, which could be available as early as next quarter, would give parents the power to stop objectionable networks from entering their homes, an option not currently available with most cable packages.
The wisdom of an a la carte option has been debated in Washington for months, arising out of last year’s indecency flap and championed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), among others.
The plan of course introduces a whole range of new questions, such as who determines what is and isn’t kiddie-friendly content. Details of the plan have yet to be worked out.
Yesterday’s family tier plan was revealed by Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, before the Senate Commerce Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has been one of the strongest critics of the cable industry.
He and others in Washington, including the FCC’s Martin, seemed very pleased with the plan, but another hearing is slated for Jan. 19, when cable operators will appear to explain how the plan would work.
Still, it is difficult to imagine that there will be any new revelations in this hearing and there are many questions ahead, despite the apparent compromise.
For starters, who will determine what’s family friendly? Many cable networks are difficult to define as strictly family or adult in nature. Networks such as Nickelodeon or Discovery Kids are easily placed in the former category, and MTV and Comedy Central are just as easily placed in the latter.
There are also networks like HGTV and the Food Network that offer adult programming that is non-offensive and family-friendly. These are all quite easy to classify.
But there are also other networks, Cartoon Network, TNT and even ABC Family come to mind, that fall in a vast expanse of middle ground, offering more mature programming at night. They will be far harder to classify.
The family tier, while seemingly a well-intentioned idea, lacks the one appeal of a la carte, which is the opportunity for parents to determine what is offensive and what is not. Congress may embrace the family tier. The question is whether families will.
Similarly, parents who do choose the tier will in many cases have to give up their own favorite networks. Will they actually do it?
In the end, though, that might not matter all that much. Simply by offering the tier, the cable industry will be removing a huge public burden, and so will Congress if it goes along. Both will be able to point to the choice consumers didn’t have before.
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