Groups urge Congress to take action on FCC's cable a-la-carte channel recommendation

[Free Press statement] Consumer, public interest, and labor groups lauded a recommendation by a Federal Communications Commission report on television violence, released last week, that Congress consider legislation giving consumers the ability to select and pay for only those cable channels they want. Channel choice gives consumers greater choice over the channels they buy, preventing them from subsidizing channels they object to, provides them with more control over the cost of their cable bills, and promotes enhanced diversity in cable programming, the groups said.

"Letting consumers, not Congress, the FCC or cable companies, decide which programming is right for their families is an appropriate, market-based response to growing concerns about violence and other objectionable programming on cable
television," said Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal and international affairs at Consumers Union. "Consumers should neither have to take extraordinary steps to block
programming they don't watch and don't want to receive, nor pay for channels they find offensive or otherwise inappropriate."

The FCC, in a report issued late last night, found that research indicates exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children and that current parental control tools offered by cable companies are ineffective in protecting children from violence. The report suggested that the cable industry adopt voluntary standards to reduce violent programming, and that Congress could adopt restrictions limiting the times violent programming could air on cable, or requirements that cable companies give consumers the ability to opt in or out of the channels offered.

Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, Communications Workers of America, and Free Press urged Congress, in a letter today, to take steps to give consumers
the ability to pick and pay for only the channels they actually want to purchase. Cable companies currently offer channels in only large, costly bundles, known as the extended basic package. Consumers are not allowed to select programming on a channel by channel basis despite 2006 AP survey findings that more than three-quarters of consumers want the ability to tailor their own packages and recent Nielsen Media Research findings that consumers watch, on average, fewer than 16 channels of the more than 100 offered.

The groups said the size of the bundle has contributed to skyrocketing cable prices, which have increased by 70 percent, nearly two and half times the rate of inflation, since Congress deregulated cable prices in 1996.

"Giving consumers the ability to pick and pay for only those channels they actually want to watch provides them with greater control, not just over content, but also over the cost of their cable service," Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.

Channel choice is preferable to other regulatory approaches suggested by the Commission, such as time-channeling, which face greater constitutional hurdles, require more government intervention and do less to empower consumers, the groups told

"Consumers should be able to choose what content is most appropriate for their families, and be offered more diverse channels than today's cable systems offer," said Ben Scott,
policy director for Free Press. "Consumer choice in cable TV opens a path to break the gatekeeping power of the cable companies over content and brings new opportunities for
a mediascape that speaks to all parts of our diverse society."

The letter said that by allowing consumers to vote with their wallets rather than forcing them to buy channels they never watch, the marketplace will respond by providing programming that is more diverse and of greater quality than the homogenized and repackaged programming forced on consumers today.

Letter to House (pdf)
Letter to Senate (pdf)

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