FCC Chairman Kevin Martin fired off a letter defending his concept of cable a la carte program menus to seven representatives of minority organizations. Although minority and other niche programmers, not to mention cable operators, are opposed, Martin believes it will be ultimately beneficial to programmers and consumers. The organizations which fear damage to cable programming serving their constituencies include the Black Leadership Forum, Hispanic Federation, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, league of United Latin American Citizens, National Black Chamber of Commerce, National Congress of Black Women and Hispanic Telecommunications and Technology Partnership. Martin trotted out his now familiar arguments. Cable subscribers who watch a limited number of channels could pick and choose the few they want and thus lower their bill. He added that Hispanic customers may benefit most of all, since they must get an entire menu of offerings when all they want are a handful of Spanish-language channels. He also said offering channels a la carte could actually increase diversity, as indy channels would be able to demonstrate their power by pointing to subscriber numbers of people who consciously made to decision to pick them. He noted the difficulty some new niche channels have getting picked up by cable systems in the first place.
TVBR observation: These arguments for a la carte get stranger all the time. Let’s look closer. Hispanic customers aren’t going to have to worry about getting English-language channels they don’t want; if they live in an area where they number less than 10% of the total population, they can instead worry that they won’t get any channels at all – if 90% of the market is by definition going to ignore Spanish language programming, the cable operator may well be forced to drop it from the menu. We also fail to see how a la carte makes it easier for a niche operation to establish itself; to the contrary, the time it takes to build an audience may kill it off before it gets a chance to take root. This whole issue is not about making it easier for minority and niche programming services, and it is not about saving consumers money. It’s about edgy programming on certain cable channels, and the desire of some in government and the watchdog community to turn the FCC into the national nanny. Parents have blocking technology which can prevent children from watching undesirable channels. The FCC should push that and take the small cable programmers’ word that a la carte will be devastating to their business model.