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Cable Unbundled

How would you like to choose precisely what your cable operator delivers to your home on a channel-by-channel basis? Would you like to live in a world where you pay only for channels you?ve specifically chosen? The new chief of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin J. Martin, would like to make that dream come true.

Behind him is a formidable coalition of religious and consumer groups who are defining a new intersection between conservative and liberal politics. The liberals, including Consumers Union, have been calling for cable freedom of choice for many years. But it?s the conservatives, including the Parents Television Council, who have finally convinced regulators to move toward concrete action.

Following is part of what Martin told the Senate commerce committee?s Open Forum on Decency. You can find the full text on the FCC website:

?Most consumers today can choose among hundreds of television channels, including some of the best programming ever produced. But television today includes some of the coarsest programming ever aired. Indeed, the networks seem to be increasing the amount of programs designed to ?push the envelope??and too often the bounds of decency. For instance, the use of profanity during the ?Family Hour? increased 95% from 1998 to 2002. Another recent study found that 70% of television shows in the 2004-2005 season had some sexual content, and the number of sexual scenes had nearly doubled since 1998.?

Martin suggests three remedies. Note, by the way, that his remarks cover satellite as well as cable program providers:

?First, satellite and cable operators could offer an exclusively family-friendly programming package as an alternative to the ?expanded basic? tier on cable or the initial tier on DBS…. Parents could get Nickelodeon and Discovery without having to buy other adult-oriented fare.?

If providers don?t play along, Martin has a second solution they?and many viewers?may find less palatable. ?Alternatively, the programming that that cable and DBS operators offer in the expanded basic package could be subject to the same indecency regulations that currently apply only to broadcast.? In other words, give us a tier of our own, or we?ll wreck all the other tiers.

Now Martin moves in for the kill: ?Finally, another alternative is for cable and DBS operators to offer programming in a more a la carte manner, giving consumers more choice over which programs they want to purchase.? How would that work? Martin?s got some ideas.

You would be required to purchase the basic broadcast package, as you are now, as the foundation of your service. Beyond that you might opt out of cable channels you find offensive (if you?re a conservative) or just boring (if you?re a liberal). In a similar scenario, you might buy broadcast basic, then opt in to whatever channels you want to watch. These strategies apply only to digital cable service because it offers the necessary flexibility.

I?m with Martin on the opt-in/out proposal. Channel choice will appeal to consumers of any political stripe.

I?m not as thrilled with his remaining a-la-carte scenario?it?s really just a slightly more specific realignment of the current tier structure. He?d have you pay $10 for 20 channels, $20 for 30 channels, etc. That would give you less choice than pure a-la-carte pricing, though more than you have now.

However, if cable operators slip a naughty channel or two into each tier, that arrangement might annoy conservatives. And if consumers have to buy pricier packages to get racy, challenging, or otherwise controversial programming, liberals and libertarians would be equally disturbed.

Martin faces an uphill battle. The FCC itself issued a report just a year ago, under his politically moderate predecessor Michael Powell, saying that a-la-carte pricing would increase the cost of cable service. Now that he?s moved up to the top spot, Martin has questioned the underlying research and ordered staffers ?to take a closer look at the issue.? Soon to come is a new report reflecting his own views.

Needless to say, the cable industry itself is unenthusiastic about letting consumers cherrypick channels. Kyle McSlarrow of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association was quick to return fire with a statement predicting that what he called ?government pay-per-channel regulation would be likely to hurt consumers by increasing prices, decreasing choices and reducing diversity and programming, and it would do so in a way that violates the First Amendment.?

In an odd associative leap, he asserted that new regulation would chill the universal deployment of broadband. (Perhaps McSlarrow would care to explain why I pay Time Warner Cable of New York City $59.95 a month for Road Runner as a broadcast-basic subscriber while the service goes for $15 less to standard-basic subscribers. A little more government regulation in this area would save me $180 a year.)

Citing the earlier report, the NCTA predicts that under a-la-carte pricing, ?prices for current tiers would increase between 7 percent and 15 percent.? Cable operators would undoubtedly incur increased costs for customer support and more complex billing and presumably those costs would be passed along to consumers. Another potential problem would be declining audience and ad revenue for programming networks (or some of them, anyway). For more details on the NCTA?s stance, check out its website.

Though some of its rejoinders are worth considering, the cable industry has more to worry about than just government regulation and consumer sentiment. Competition from other, hungrier sectors of the telecom industry ultimately may prove to be the straw that breaks cable?s back. For instance, there?s AT&T (the new name of SBC following its acquisition of the old AT&T). Said a spokesperson: ?If consumers want a la carte programming, we will be happy to offer it, so long as we are able to obtain access to the programming in that manner.? The other Baby Bell moving into video delivery, Verizon, is saying little for now.

Even within its own ranks, the cable industry has at least one loose cannon. Cablevision?s Chuck Dolan hailed Martin?s statement and said per-channel pricing ?would be in the best interests of consumers. Like chairman Martin, we do not believe in the long term that selling programming a la carte will be detrimental to either programmers or cable operators.?

Buoyed by these multiple groundswells of support, Martin?s basic idea will resonate with consumers unsettled by ever-increasing cable bills and bewildered by video delivery services that more and more resemble our dysfunctional health care system. Why shouldn?t we buy just what we want? Why must we pay for what we don?t want? Given our druthers, consumers always opt for greater freedom of choice.

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Mark Fleischmann is the audio editor of Home Theater and the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.