More on New FCC A La Carte Report

by on February 13, 2006

Last week I outlined a few of my concerns with the FCC’s new a la carte report. I was relieved to see that others are raising similar issues with the report.

For example, Fortune senior writer Marc Gunther published an essay today entitled “Why A La Carte Cable TV is a Nutty Idea.” And Kansas City Star TV Critic Aaron Barnhart released an essay on Friday entitled “The Indecency Wars: Book II.” Gunther and Barnhart share similar concerns about the new report.

First, Gunther and Barnhart agree that the FCC’s report is remarkably ambiguous on several key issues. Gunther notes that:

“the FCC report is filled with so many ‘mights’ and ‘coulds’ that it’s impossible to know whether unbundling would drive down rates. The FCC admits that it lacks data ‘about what a la carte prices would be for individual networks.'”

Barnhart agrees and is even more scathing in his criticism of the report’s ambiguity:

“If you actually read the report, you’ll be amazed at how little [Chairman Kevin] Martin actually asserts as fact. There are a thousand “coulds,” “mights” and “mays” the cumulative effect of which is to create the perception it has refuted the Powell report line by line. In reality, Martin’s report has more fudge in it than Grandma’s cupboard.”


Second, Gunther and Barnhart agree that the underlying motivation for the a la carte regulatory crusade is really moral in nature.

Barnhart believes that the a la carte is really an attempt to achieve through indirect means what the agency knows it probably cannot achieve through direct regulation–the censorship of subscription-based television channels. Barnhart notes:

“Meanwhile, the Trojan horse of cable indecency gets waved right through. The FCC knows it cannot win an indecency case against MTV, no matter how much evidence the PTC [Parents Television Council] watchdogs collect. So instead, it is going the intimidation route. It may just work.”

Again, Gunther agrees:

“So what’s going on here? Politics, as usual. Supporters of unbundling include Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and the Parents Television Council… These conservatives want consumers to be able to avoid so-called indecent channels. Of course, viewers already can avoid them by using existing “blocking” technology or monitoring what their kids watch on TV.”

As Gunther concludes, if people really to argue about the moral dimensions of a la carte, then there are a few other angles to consider. Namely, since when was the Constitution rewritten to include an inalienable right to couch-potato fare? As he argues:

“The thing is, 72 million people subscribe to cable. If they don’t think they are getting good value, they can switch to satellite TV providers like DirecTV and Echostar or wait for the phone companies like Verizon or SBC Communications to offer video, as they have begun to do. They could also watch over-the-air television or–please make sure you are sitting before reading on–they could watch no television at all. If cable TV were a necessity, like phone service or electricity, there might be reason for regulators to decide how it should be sold. But it’s not. We need food and oxygen. We don’t need The Food Network and Oxygen.”

Amen brother!

(If you’re interested in more on the moral & philosophical dimensions of the debate over a la carte controls, I encourage you to read my recent paper on the subject.)

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