This week, FCC chairman Kevin Martin suggested that consumers should be allowed to pick and choose "a la carte" which cable channels come into their homes. The cable industry cried foul. As Los Angeles Times reporter Jube Shiver explains to Bob, the debate has confronted one group with an especially thorny set of issues – religious broadcasters.
BOB GARFIELD:: This week in a Congressional hearing devoted to rising indecency on cable and satellite TV, FCC chairman Kevin Martin sent a shockwave through the very heart of the cable business.
KEVIN MARTIN:: Cable and satellite television offers some great family-oriented choices, but parents cannot subscribe to these channels alone. Rather, they are forced to buy the channels they do not want their families to view in order to obtain the family-friendly channels they desire.
BOB GARFIELD:: Basically, Martin said that instead of bundling services in variously-priced packages, cable should offer most of its channels a-la-carte. That should please the anti-indecency forces who would prefer to choose which channels come into their homes, but it threatens other channels, including many religious programmers that have long been included in the packages. This odd situation has placed some religious broadcasters in the anti-anti-indecency-camp camp. Complicating [CHUCKLES] matters, some TV stations that double as cable channels face the chilling possibility that the so-called "must-carry" rules that require cable systems to offer them may be struck down when TV converts to a digital system. Martin's proposal is pretty radical coming from a conservative because it turns cable's traditional business model upside down, as Jube Shiver, who's covering the issue for the Los Angeles Times, explains.
JUBE SHIVER:: Cable providers are like phone companies. They build their network out to try to reach basically everyone, and the cable providers argue that niche programs, like the Golf Channel or Black Entertainment Television, would not be able to survive economically if they were to be picked on an a-la-carte basis. They argue that a lot of the variety that you see on cable now would not exist but for the fact that they bundle programs together.
BOB GARFIELD:: Tell me what "must-carry" means and what its genesis is in the law.
JUBE SHIVER:: Must-carry provisions were included in the 1992 Cable Act, and they basically require that cable operators carry all of the over-the-air signals of local television stations. And now those usually include the public broadcast station, the network affiliates and most independents. So religious broadcasters are backing that, those that own stations, because that means there are more religious channels that they can create that will have to be carried by the cable operator.
BOB GARFIELD:: Well, I'm glad you raised the issue of religious broadcasters, because among those kind of flipping out about Kevin Martin's proposal was the Coalition of Religious Broadcasters, who realize that if people are picking and choosing and paying a-la-carte for certain channels on their cable systems, their potential audience is apt to go very, very, [LAUGHS] very steeply downward.
JUBE SHIVER:: Religious broadcasters have always argued that they want to reach out not to just people who are in the choir but people who aren't necessarily in the church. And that's why those that have stations want must-carry because they figure if they're part of some basic cable tier, which I think even the people who favor a-la-carte say that there will be a basic tier of local stations that provide you with local news and weather, and there will be a point at which you get to select individual programs. Well, if they're on that basic tier of starting-point channels where everybody has them, then they could be among those that you run across when you're channel-surfing on your TV. If, on the other hand, we have either a pure a-la-carte system or we don't have must-carry, the audience for that religious program doesn't necessarily expand. They're basically preaching to the choir.
BOB GARFIELD:: So if I understand it correctly, the religious broadcasters actually have two dogs in this fight. They don't want a-la-carte because fewer people will opt in to pay for religious channels, and they want to preserve the must-carry rules, which, if preserved, will ensure them of being able to get many more over-the-air religious stations carried on all cable systems.
JUBE SHIVER:: Yes. That's true. There are two business models among religious broadcasters. There are those who have stations and therefore see this indecency controversy as an opportunity to get the government to pass a law that says all local stations should be carried by cable systems, and then there are those on the other side who just have programs that they sell to cable operators who don't have stations, who say, "Well, if you do that, that leaves less room for us," especially at a time when cable operators, in addition to video programming, are offering high-speed Internet access and telephone service. All that takes up space in the cable system, so that means less for the guys that are purely peddling a program, whether they're religious broadcaster or anyone else, for trying to reach new subscribers.
BOB GARFIELD:: Considering that the economic model of the industry would be just turned upside down if Chairman Martin gets his way, this thing would most likely end up in the courts. And courts, in looking at legislation and regulation, historically usually insist on the least disruptive remedy. It's hard to imagine that any court would see Chairman Martin's proposal as the least disruptive remedy for the problem of indecent content getting into people's homes.
JUBE SHIVER:: You're right. The FCC and Chairman Martin certainly face an uphill battle to implement any of these anti-indecency proposals, and of the options, the a-la-carte one really faces the highest obstacles, because the cable industry can argue on technical grounds that it's going to cost them a lot of money to implement a system where people can pick and choose. And on First Amendment grounds, they can argue that basically the government is telling them what programs to offer to consumers. So that's why they're really sort of using Congress as a bully pulpit to try to encourage the industry to police itself.
BOB GARFIELD:: Okay. Well Jube, thank you very much.
JUBE SHIVER:: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:: Jube Shiver is a reporter in the Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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