Cable à la Carte Makes a Comeback in Congress

Sen. McCain may introduce bill this week

À la carte is about to make a congressional comeback. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is working on a bill that would require cable and satellite companies to offer customers the option of buying individual channels, rather than packaged bundles of channels currently offered.

The bill is expected to be introduced this week and is a retread of a bill McCain put forth in 2006, according to broadcast lobbyists.

Allowing consumers to buy only the channels they want is a concept that gained new momentum as sports programming costs have skyrocketed. Consumers have grown tired of bearing the cost of channels like ESPN and other high-priced networks they don't want to watch. But cable and satellite TV companies hate it because it could up-end the cable business model, and they argue that a la carte is not only impractical, but would raise cable prices for consumers.

Details about McCain's bill are sparse, but sources say it will take away the compulsory programming license from cable and satellite companies that don't offer a la carte to consumers. The bill would also repeal the sports blackout rule that prevented some stations from airing a major sports game because of low attendance.

Finally, the bill would take a stab at addressing some of the controversy over Aereo, which uses tiny antennas to stream broadcast signals to consumers over the Internet. If a broadcaster pulls its signal from over the air and turns it into a cable channel (like News Corp. and CBS threatened in response to Aereo), then the broadcaster would lose its over-the-air license.

Since McCain is no longer a member of the commerce committee, the bill is likely to get more buzz than momentum.