National Review on FCC’s Cable War

by on November 30, 2007 · 3 comments

As I mentioned yesterday, James Gattuso and I penned an editorial for National Review this week about the growth of FCC regulation and spending in recent years. In the op-ed, we also noted that, “For whatever reason, a disproportionate number of these [new regulatory proposals] have been aimed at cable television, so much so that press and industry analysts now speak of Chairman Martin’s ongoing ‘war on cable.’”

Today, the editors at National Review have chimed in with an editorial of their own on the issue entitled, “Pulling the Cable on Martin’s Crusade.” Specifically, the editors address what most pundits believe really motivates the Chairman’s crusade against cable: His desire to force cable companies to offer consumers channels on “a la carte” basis in an effort to “clean up” cable TV. “Martin should abandon this particular crusade,” the NR editors argue. “While we are sympathetic to parents’ desire to get the channels they want without having to buy access to racier fare, using economic regulation to restructure an industry is the wrong approach.” They continue:

For TV programmers, the practice of bundling channels together works well. Religious and minority-oriented channels can piggyback on the popularity of the sports and news channels. This is why the Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition, a group of the nation’s leading religious broadcasters, opposes efforts to impose à la carte programming. Not enough consumers who currently subscribe to the basic-cable bundle would buy religious programming under an à la carte model.

All channels thus benefit from the bundling model, which allows them to access households that might not otherwise be interested in their programming. For this reason, TV programmers have signed contracts with cable companies that prohibit à la carte sales. Forcing the cable companies to ignore these agreements would amount to a wholesale overwriting of private contractual arrangements. Supporters of à la carte have failed to demonstrate a need for such dirigisme. If consumer demand for à la carte options is sufficiently strong, there is no structural impediment to the market’s satisfaction of it.

Some social conservatives argue that parents should be able to buy the Disney Channel without having to let MTV’s 24-hour sleaze-a-thon into their homes. But parents who wish to shield their children from immoral influences are not without options. They can monitor their children’s viewing, block channels, or forgo cable (or television) altogether. We realize that the existence of these options falls short of a comprehensive solution to the difficulties of raising children in a culture that sometimes seems hostile to the enterprise. But the answer is not a mandate that would trample private contract rights and drive religious programming off the air.

Nevertheless, Kevin Martin has pressed forward in his attempts either to force the cable companies to adopt an à la carte model or to scare them into doing so. At Tuesday’s meeting he tried to use an arcane provision of federal communications law to declare the cable market uncompetitive and subject to more FCC regulation. This would arguably give the FCC power to impose à la carte pricing, though it would be challenged in court. But even without that authority, the FCC would still have more power to make the cable companies miserable until they acceded to Martin’s demands.

Fortunately, a majority of his fellow commissioners saw things differently and scuttled the plan. But Martin has signaled that he intends to persist. He does not seem to grasp that the government cannot just pick and choose, à la carte, which private contracts it intends to honor.

This gets it exactly right, and it closely tracks the argument I set forth originally in my PFF paper, “Moral and Philosophical Aspects of the Debate over A La Carte Regulation.”

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