FCC Talks "A La Carte" Cable

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin thinks your cable bill is too high.

Hell, Mr. Martin probably thinks his cable bill is too high.

According to USAToday, Martin is going after “tying,” a practice broadcasters use to bully cable companies into carrying more channels on basic cable. More channels (think ESPN 8 “The Ocho”) mean higher cable rates, says Martin. He thinks curbs on tying will help stop cable bill increases for consumers.

“The problem for consumers is that they have to pay higher rates for a bunch of channels they may not want or watch,” Martin says, “Cable TV rates have continued to rise above the rate of inflation. I’m hopeful that this would help control the rate of increase of cable rates.”

The cable companies are with Martin on this one.

Cable operators have tried to get around tying for years, says Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association, which represents hundreds of small cable TV operators. “At a time when (cable consumers) are screaming for choice, there is none, largely because of consolidation and control of content.”

Polka says programmers also use ownership of broadcast networks and stations to force “carriage” of channels. ABC is owned by Disney, NBC by General Electric (GE), CBS by Viacom and Fox by News Corp (NWS). All have cable arms that create new channels regularly.

Cable operators are required to carry all local TV stations, but federal rules let broadcasters pick how they want to be paid: Cash or carriage of their company’s cable channels.

Polka says programmers typically set the cash price so high that operators have little choice but to agree to take their channels. Recently, they’ve even started to demand support for their websites, he says.

Martin says that under the bar on bundling that the FCC plans to examine, programmers would have to sell channels individually. “You can’t tie the channel in any way. … If you only want one channel, you shouldn’t have to take 10 or 20.”

Tying also has a less-obvious downside for consumers: It allows big programmers to pack cable TV with their channels, leaving less room for channels from other providers.

FCC puts ‘a la carte’ cable on the menu [USAToday]