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.


Mark Fleischmann is the audio editor of Home Theater and the author of Practical Home Theater (

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

Smart Home

Two U.S. senators think your TV is spying on you, ask the FTC to investigate

U.S. Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate smart TV privacy policies and practices. The Senators say smart TVs can build viewer profiles that include political affiliations.
Home Theater

How to install an HD antenna so you can start enjoying free television

Today's TV antennas will get you loads of free over-the-air broadcast TV, but setting them up can be a challenge. We walk you through how to install a TV antenna, and provide tips on picking the best antenna for your home.
Movies & TV

Close that torrent! Here's how to watch 'Game of Thrones' online (legally)

Game of Thrones is one of the most popular shows on TV, but unless you're a cable subscriber, finding a way to watch isn't always easy. Check out our guide on how to watch online, whether you prefer using HBO, Sling TV, Hulu, or Amazon.
Home Theater

Banish the bunny ears (and monthly bills) with these excellent indoor antennas

When transitioning away from cable and satellite, finding the best HDTV antenna for your area can be touch. To help, we've compiled our picks of the best indoor HDTV antennas you can buy.
Home Theater

Why Sling TV is an essential part of a balanced cord-cutting diet

Sling TV has grown a great deal since its launch. Now there are more channels and more packages to chose from, with prices to match, and more is being added all the time. Everything you need to know is right here.
Home Theater

Netflix vs. Hulu vs. Amazon Prime: Battle of the streaming giants

Trying to figure out which subscription streaming service to use while sticking to a frugal entertainment budget? Check out our updated comparison of the big three: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu.
Home Theater

AT&T wants to make HBO more like Netflix, and it could be a disaster

After acquiring HBO parent company Time Warner, AT&T is pushing HBO to become more like Netflix, but for all of Netflix’s success, this plan might not be great for either HBO or its customers.
Home Theater

Need more contrast in your life? Here’s what you need to know about HDR TVs

So what is HDR TV? In a nutshell, it’s the best thing to happen to TV since the arrival of 4K. Here's everything you need to know about the technology, what it can do, and why it’s a must-have.
Movies & TV

Do you have questions about Hulu and Hulu with Live TV? We've got answers

Not sure which Hulu subscription is right for you? We're here to help. This is your complete guide to Hulu and Hulu with Live TV, including content offerings for each service, pricing, internet requirements, and more.
Home Theater

Here’s how to mirror your smartphone or tablet onto your TV

A vast arsenal of devices exists to allow casting of anything on your mobile device to your TV. If you're wondering how to mirror content from your smartphone or tablet to a bigger screen, we've got an in-depth guide.

The best Windows apps

Not sure what apps you should be downloading for your newfangled Windows device? Here are the best Windows apps, whether you need something to speed up your machine or access your Netflix queue. Check out our categories and favorite picks!
Home Theater

Time for a TV upgrade? Here’s what you need to know about 4K Ultra HD TV

Ultra HD 4K has quickly taken over the world of TVs. But what is Ultra HD 4K, how does it work, and most importantly, should you upgrade, or keep your old TV? We explain it all right here.
Home Theater

We all cut cable, and now we’re just as screwed on streaming

As live TV streaming services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue raise prices in tandem, it raises questions about whether these services were ever a viable alternative to cable in the first place.
Movies & TV

Can't get enough lightsaber action? Get your Star Wars fix online with our guide

Few of us want to deal with DVDs or Blu-ray discs anymore. Unfortunately, the Star Wars movies are few and far between when it comes to streaming. If you want to watch Star Wars online, check out our guide on where to find them.
Home Theater

Are there reasons to own a projector when big TVs are so cheap? Glad you asked

Since no aspect of your home theater setup is more important than your display, we weigh in on the projectors vs. TVs debate. We've put together this comprehensive guide to help you find the right option for your lifestyle.

Here’s how to download podcasts and listen to them on Android or iOS

Podcasts have become a cultural staple. Here's how to download podcasts and listen to them on your Android or iOS device, and which apps to use if you're looking to get the most out of the format.
Home Theater

Why I still won’t wear wireless headphones

Wireless headphones promise liberation from cords, tangles, and snags, but there’s just one issue holding them back: battery life. And until manufacturers figure it out, sales numbers prove consumers aren’t yet biting.

Google might be planning a game console. That doesn’t mean it will happen

A new report suggests that Google is working on a game console, code-named Yeti. The reports about Google's game console are likely true, but that doesn't mean we will ever see it.

MacOS Mojave brings evening elegance to your Mac experience

The MacOS Mojave public beta is out now, with an official release coming later this fall. Chock-full of quality-of-life upgrades, we took it for a test drive to get a sneak peek at what you can expect from the next major update to MacOS…
Health & Fitness

Ugh. I’m done with fitness trackers, and so is the world

In 2016, everyone was tracking their fitness. In 2017, people grew tired of it. In 2018, I’m done with it. I’m going tracker-free in my workouts from now on.

iOS 12 is more evidence you should buy an iPhone, not an Android phone

The next version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 12, will be compatible with devices all the way back to 2013’s iPhone 5S. Android phones from the same era didn’t even see 2016’s software update. It’s further evidence you…

5 obviously stupid iPhone problems that iOS 12 doesn’t even try to fix

At WWDC 2018, Apple took the wraps off the latest version of its iOS operating system. iOS 12 introduces quite a bit of changes -- visually and under the hood -- but there are still some basics that it doesn’t address. Here are a few of…