Choose Your Poison

November 30, 2005 at 3:22pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in 625 Elm Street

Mr. T sent along a link to an article from USA Today that describes how the FCC, in a dramatic reversal, now wants satellite and cable operators to let consumers choose their channels. So-called “a la carte” subscription methods would give the consumer more power over their channel lineup.

I like the idea of giving consumers more choice, but I strongly dislike the idea that we might get there “thanks” to FCC meddling.

The FCC is taking its latest stand for a single reason: the FCC is run by prudish, uptight bureaucrats who want to force their vision of morality upon all Americans. OK, that’s a little harsh, but only a little. This move is part of the FCC’s post-Super Bowl boob effort to “clean up” television and radio entertainment. That’s not inherently an unworthy goal, but the FCC’s methods to date have tended toward government censorship and the stifling of free expression. Their desired ends, though reasonable enough, are being pursued with unacceptable—and likely unconstitutional—means.

What I find most amusing about the FCC’s latest push in favor of “consumer rights” (a wolf in sheep’s clothing if I’ve ever seen one) is that it is in reaction to the failure of the FCC’s own policies and practices. The FCC has long supported current “block” channel packages. Likewise, the FCC has for years pushed for program ratings and filtering technology that ostensibly allows parents to block certain programs or channels. The infamous V-Chip, for example, required in all televisions since 1996, has been a complete failure. Few critics were surprised. Solutions to the problem—and identifying the presence of a problem in the first place—should be determined by the marketplace, not by government bureaucrats trying to score political points.

Why is it that government’s response to failed meddling is never to apologize and back away, but rather always to come up with a “new and improved” way to regulate, intervene, and interfere? Even if the FCC’s new stance is a good one, their involvement is far more likely to make the television experience worse for the consumer than better. One of the potential side effects of a la carte channel menus is that less popular, “minor” channels will no longer be affordable for cable and satellite companies to carry. The end result is fewer channels, a heavier reliance on “mainstream” channels, and less variety and fewer consumer choices—the exact opposite of the stated goal of a la carte proposals. The FCC will eventually realize that, and they will have a solution: more regulation. They will tell cable companies to add surcharges to customers’ bills to support the minor channels, or maybe the FCC will require customers to add one minor channel for every X number of mainstream channels he picks from the menu. In any event, the consumer is stuck with fewer choices, higher costs, or both.

In short, the notion of a la carte channel selection is compelling, but such a system should be driven by the market, not by the government. If it were such a great idea, one of the major cable or satelite providers would already be offering it, and the others would quickly follow. Consumers have toyed with the idea for a long time, and cable and satellite providers are very aware of it. The fact it is not yet available is not a sign of marketplace failure, but of success. I have no doubt that a la carte menus and 100% on-demand pay-per-view options are in our future. But let’s let the people who know best—the consumers and the providers—determine when the market is ready to support those systems in a way that maximizes consumer choice and minimizes costs.

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foxspit November 30, 2005 at 5:07pm

Time Warner has been flogging us with channels like PaxTV and Shop at Home as “enhancements” like they are doing us a favor by raising our bill and giving us two more channels nobody wants, meanwhile we have to beg to get Fox Sports Midwest or the WB.

If a la carte means I can get rid of channels I don’t use I’m all for it, as long as I don’t have to pay more for the same service I have now.

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