Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin yesterday said allowing consumers to buy cable channels individually, rather than in packages, might not be more expensive and would help protect children from indecent and violent programs.
Martin's comments were a warning to satellite and cable providers that if they fail to promote family-friendly viewing, Congress could consider imposing decency standards such as those that apply to over-the-air network broadcasts.
The FCC chairman's remarks about "a la carte" pricing at a congressional hearing offered support for an idea fiercely opposed by the industry, which argues that this will raise consumer costs and ultimately limit TV choices.
Industry analysts said Martin's testimony would give ammunition to those who want to pass legislation requiring providers to sell channels individually, but added that such a step would face stiff political resistance.
Lawmakers regularly decry increasingly coarse content on TV, but they have been at a loss to enact laws to limit it, hemmed in by First Amendment protections and by a powerful entertainment industry lobby.
Martin was unusually blunt in faulting the industry for not doing enough to protect children.
"For the last three years, I have . . . been urging the cable and satellite industry to give parents more of the tools they need. Thus far, there has been too little response," Martin said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing that included testimony by entertainment executives and anti-indecency groups.
"If cable and satellite operators continue to refuse to offer parents more tools such as family-friendly programming packages, basic indecency and profanity restrictions may be a viable alternative that should also be considered," he said. He also said he would prefer voluntary action by the industry.
In his testimony, Martin repudiated an FCC study released last year by his predecessor, Michael K. Powell, that found that a la carte pricing would raise consumer costs and would not be viable for the industry.
Martin said that study "relied on problematic assumptions and presented incorrect and at times biased analysis."
He said the agency's new study "concludes that purchasing cable programming in a more a la carte manner in fact could be economically feasible and in consumers' best interest."
Cable industry executives rejected the notion.
Among other things, they said, it would raise their costs, reduce their advertising revenue and crowd out niche channels that would not attract enough viewers to survive if sold on their own.
Kyle McSlarrow, who heads the National Cable and Telecommunications Association cable industry trade group, said recent studies had found that mandatory a la carte rules "would be likely to hurt consumers by increasing prices, decreasing choice and reducing diversity in programming, and it would do so in a way that violates the First Amendment. "
Without endorsing any particular solution, Martin outlined three options to deal with the issue.
He said providers could offer customers a family-friendly programming package; they could sell channels a la carte, allowing parents to buy only those channels they want; or the government's limits on broadcast indecency and violence could be extended to core offerings from cable and satellite companies.
For more than a quarter-century, broadcasters have been barred from airing "patently offensive" material of a sexual or excretory nature between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to see it. No such restriction applies to cable and satellite providers.
The House this year passed a bill championed by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) that would raise the top indecency fine on broadcasters to $500,000 from $32,500. The bill would not affect cable or satellite providers.
"We continue to believe it will be an uphill battle to enact cable indecency legislation," Stanford Washington Research Group analyst Paul Gallant wrote in a report. He said mandatory a la carte rules could hurt cable and satellite providers, TV programmers and telephone companies now entering the video business.
"As a result, legislation would have to overcome significant lobbying efforts by powerful industries," Gallant said.