Cable TV choice? Not anytime soon

With your cable television bill rising even faster than the number of channels you pay for and don't watch, you probably don't want to hear that chances of anything being done about it are remote at best.

The only attempt we know of is being made by Sen. John McCain and Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Sen. McCain (R) introduced and Sen. Blumenthal (D) signed on to a bill that would let you buy your cable channels a la carte, the way you might buy dinner in a restaurant, paying for the channels you want and skipping the rest.

It sounds wonderful, but it's probably going nowhere, according to no greater authority than Sen. McCain, who told his hometown paper, The Arizona Republic, he'd be "really surprised" if his bill passes. In his recent meeting with The Day editorial board, Sen. Blumenthal was more direct. It won't pass, he said. But the senator from Connecticut plans to keep trying.

Sen. McCain has kept at it. He introduced a similar bill during the Bush administration but couldn't get it through the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which he chaired at the time. Now, he's no longer on the committee and it still has to clear telecommunications bills before they reach the floor.

Sen. Blumenthal, who hasn't seen a consumer issue he didn't like since his earliest days as state attorney general, is on the committee, but he's down at the end of the table with the other junior members. And even if the bill clears the committee and passes in the Senate, imagine how the Tea Party-dominated House would react to telling an industry, that's also a heavy contributor, how to conduct its business?

The House and Senate would be listening to opposition from not only the cable and entertainment industries, but also from some consumer and minority groups and religious broadcasters, who fear the less popular channels could be dropped if they aren't selected by enough customers. This, they say, would deprive viewers of programming that has smaller but no less devoted audiences.

The cable industry is a formidable lobby, as effective as Big Oil and the National Rifle Association. And when we say "cable industry," we're talking about a lot more than the cable companies.

The cable companies - Comcast, Cox and the rest -are customers of media companies like Time Warner and Disney that force them to buy all their channels - the popular ones and the turkeys - if they want to get any of them. So if folks blame the cable company, they're blaming only the messenger and giving a pass to the few media companies that own more than 90 percent of the shows we watch and don't watch.

Not surprisingly, both sides have impressive studies backing their positions on a la carte. In 2006, the Federal Communications Commission issued a report that found consumers would save as much as 13 percent on their bills if they only had to buy the channels they wanted. The report noted the average household watches 17 channels and pays for hundreds and cable bills have been increasing about 6.1 percent a year the past 15 years. That's nearly 100 percent if you do the math.

But the cable industry's National Cable and Telecommunications Association counters with "independent studies" that reach a radically different conclusion. They have found the audience size for each channel would shrink dramatically with a la carte in place, forcing substantial increases to make up for the loss in advertising. These increases would, of course, be passed on to the customers.

It's a bit like Obamacare, which needs healthy young people paying for premiums to subsidize the older, sicker segment of the population.

To summarize the situation, we have Sens. McCain and Blumenthal, the FCC and some cable customers on one side and lobbyists for Rupert Murdoch, Disney, Cox, Comcast, Verizon and the rest along with some cable customers, televangelists, and civil rights groups on the other.

So, unless you're dining out, don't plan on ordering a la carte any time soon.

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