McCain, Tate Tout Cable Choice


Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has introduced his long-awaited CHOICE Act, which would  free new cable competitors from local franchising regs if they, in turn, would agree to offer their video channels à la carte.

McCain described the bill as supplying "significant regulatory relief to video service providers, such as telephone and cable companies, that agree to both offer cable channels on an a la carte basis to subscribers and to not prohibit any channel owned by the video service provider from being sold individually."
In exchange for voluntarily offering a la carte, which he said AT&T has said it would do, "video service providers would receive the right to obtain a national franchise; would be permitted to pay lower fees to municipalities for the use of public rights of way; would benefit from a streamlined definition of  'gross video revenue' for the calculation of such fees; and would gain a prohibition on the solicitation of institutional networks, in-kind donation, and unlimited public access channels."

RCN said it was willing to try it. "We are pleased to see that this bill pushes forward the concept of themed a la carte family programming," said RCN Senior Richard Ramlall. Ramlall said the company had met with Martin recently and expressed its willingness to try out a la carte in Boston.

"We believe that themed a la carte tiers would greatly enhance consumer choice by allowing them to choose from an array of smaller programming tiers, limited to the kind of categories of programming they most want and value. At the same time it would support development of new and diverse programming in those categories," explained Ramlall.

Anti-indecency group Concerned Women for America, which has pushed for a la carte as a way for parents to control "offensive programming," praised the move immediately, saying that it would both allow parents to monitor content and cut cable bills by letting parents pick and choose among channels. Those are also the twin aims of McCain.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a strong backer of voluntary a la carte as a way to give parents more control of content, as well as a supporter of video franchise relief, came out strongly for the McCain bill, saying: "I support Senator McCain's efforts to increase cable competition and choice for consumers as well as remove regulations that keep potential competitors out of the video business." One of Martin's policy advisers on indecency issues is Penny Nance, former head of the CWA.

Another concerned woman talking a la carte Wednesday was new FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, who told a New America content-control forum in Washington that as cable was changing its business model to offer multiple services, it should take the opportunity to change its business model to serve customers, not just businesses, by giving parents more choice.

She called it "channel on-demand," saying it was a way for regular folks--she's from way outside the Beltway in Tennessee--to understand the issue. To most of them, she said, à la carte means something off the restaurant menu.

Tate said that "channel on demand" was not a silver bullet, but was pushing it as part of the arsenal, along with better parental oversight, and educational efforts, not just about what not to watch and how not to watch it, but promoting more positive programming as well.