Evangelicals vs. Christian Cable

By Piet Levy
Religion News Service
Saturday, June 10, 2006

Evangelical Christians are on the front lines in the battle over indecency on cable television, calling for a pick-and-choose pricing plan that would allow viewers to keep certain channels out of their homes.

But on the opposite end of the battlefield is an opponent familiar to and even respected by evangelicals: Christian cable stations.

The fear among Christian broadcasters is that a proposal to allow consumers to reject MTV or Comedy Central would also allow them to drop the Trinity Broadcasting Network or Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. Cutting off that access could hurt religious broadcasters.

"We do not believe that 'a la carte' is the cure for the disease," said Colby May, attorney for the Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition, which represents Trinity and CBN, in addition to other stations. "In fact, it is a cure that may very well kill the patient."

Evangelical and family groups support the concept of "a la carte" cable legislation, which would allow cable users to subscribe only to the networks of their choice.

The plan, endorsed in an unofficial Federal Communications Commission report and likely to be proposed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is billed as a way to avoid paying for such stations as FX, Comedy Central and MTV, which rack up high ratings with such risque or controversial shows as "The Shield," "South Park" and "The Real World."

May argues that an a la carte cable package would drive up the per-subscriber cost of each individual station to compensate for lower subscription numbers. The viewer's cable bill could rise even if the number of stations went down.

But the Christian networks' main concern is that the only ones willing to subscribe would be Christians. If a la carte were in existence, May argues, conversion experiences for alcoholics and people contemplating suicide or suffering from a crumbling marriage never would have happened.

"If you obligate viewers to pre-select religious service, you are essentially going to find yourself witnessing to the choir," May said. "In combination, all of these networks have literally thousands and thousands of anecdotal stories of people who were channel-surfing that came across one of their services and it changed their life for the better."

But such Christian groups as Concerned Women for America say lives would be better with the a la carte plan.

"Unfortunately, the number of inappropriate programs far outweighs the number of good," said Lanier Swann, the group's director of government relations. "Our issue is to protect families."

Dan Isett, director of corporate and government affairs for the conservative group Parents Television Council, argues that religious broadcasters on localized cable services would not be affected by a pick-and-choose cable choice plan. He said the policy might even grant more opportunities for fledgling networks not owned by major multimedia corporations.

"If consumers have a choice, it opens up a new range of diversified programming that doesn't exist today," Isett said. "If I were [Trinity Broadcasting Network], I would look at this as an unparalleled opportunity to reach people."

Michael Goodman, media analyst for the Yankee Group, said a la carte may sound like a great idea, but it's bound to have serious consequences for viewers and cable firms. He argues for a more obvious approach.

"That's why we have remote controls," Goodman said. "If you don't want to see it, turn the channel. Or if you really don't want to see it, use the parental controls."

But Swann said because many children are more tech-savvy than their parents, it is simply not enough. Besides, she said, the main problem is that cable subscribers are required to pay for material that they find objectionable.

In an effort to appease critics, the two main cable providers, Time Warner and Comcast, announced "family tier" packages late last year that carry only what they construe to be family-appropriate stations, such as the Disney Channel, Discovery Kids, the Food Network and CNN Headline News. But the critics are still upset.

"The 'family tier' system is a straw man designed to fail," Swann said. ". . . I don't think we need the same individuals who promote, produce and air the type of programming we're trying to avoid to be allowed to define what is family-friendly."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company