This strikes me as akin to turkeys giving lessons on flying. Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), chaired a series of hearings that amounted to a stare-down with cable programmers and operators. On the pretense of addressing indecency in the media, Stevens’ panel actually served to intimidate the media execs into volunteering to offer something called a family-friendly tier of channels. This vague schedule innovation would effectively impose on cable and satellite a set of decency standards similar to those of broadcast networks, who operate on public airwaves.
Family-friendly bundles are being pushed by FCC chair Kevin Martin, who was appointed to the chairmanship by President Bush last March. He previously worked in Bush’s 2000 campaign, and his wife, Catherine, is the chief public affairs strategist for Vice President Dick Cheney. Martin has been using the threat of advancing indecency legislation and a la carte pricing to extort the industry’s acceptence of the family-friendly model. Sen. Stevens is playing along by holding hearings that probably cannot result in constitutionally viable legislation. The courts, since the 1970’s, including the Supreme Court in 2000, have consistently ruled that such legislation violated the first amendment.
So why would these execs go along? The two largest cable operators in the country, Time Warner and Comcast, are in the process of purchasing the assets of Adelphia Cable. The fate of this transaction rests largely with the FCC. In addition, a la carte pricing is looked upon by the industry as a ruinous upheavel of their businesses. While on the surface, it seems appealing to be able to pick and choose the channels you want, in practice it would probably cost viewers more for less service. If channels sold for between $4.00 (i.e. CNN, ESPN, MTV) and $15.00 (i.e. HBO Showtime), you would be unlikely to get 10 channels for under $50.00. Compare this to the $45.00 you can now spend for over 100 channels. And the channels with fewer viewers would probably cease to exist. The decency police at the Parents Television Council think this is a good thing. Says its president, Brent Bozell:
“Maybe you won’t have 100 channels, maybe you’ll only have 20. But good programming is going to survive, and you will get rid of some waste.”
Presumably he means waste like the History, SciFi, and ironically, Family Channels. These lower rated channels would have difficulty pulling in subscribers unless, of course, they were included in the new packaging. But the real hypocricy is that these free market advocates are afraid to let the market decide what it really wants to watch. I would wager that if you gave people the choice of cherry picking the channels they want at $4.00 each, or selecting a bundle with 100 channels for less money, most would go with the bundle. But since the real motivation here is to sanitize the program offerings for the benefit of those most easily offended, the marketplace doesn’t really have anything to say about it.