Nets Worry Over New FCC Claims

Congressional wrangling over cable TV programming could accelerate in coming months as lawmakers react to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, who said last week that cable subscribers might save money if allowed to pay only for the channels they want.

Programmers’ reactions ranged from gloomy to sullen as they digested Martin’s conclusion that reversed recent agency consensus. In November 2004, the FCC said à la carte offerings were likely to reduce bills only for households buying nine or fewer channels. That’s not too attractive, since the FCC figures the average TV household watches 17 channels. Now, the agency said, “corrected calculations” show a consumer could get as many as 20 without boosting monthly bills.

Martin long has backed changed subscription options as a way to address indecency concerns. Cable operators have acceded to his suggestion for family-friendly tiers (consumer acceptance is not clear, since the tiers are still being formed). “À la carte and increased tiering would offer consumers greater choice and the opportunity to lower their bills,” Martin wrote in a statement accompanying last week’s report.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association called it “disappointing” that the FCC relied upon “assumptions which are not in line with the marketplace.”

Martin’s report could give fresh impetus to those on Capitol Hill who back à la carte. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the chair of the Committee on Commerce who has spent much of the past year pressuring cable over racy content, issued a statement: “If à la carte is not more expensive for consumers, I will support an effort to take such an approach, subject to discussions with providers on the downside of such a process.”