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ACA Open to a la Carte

Independent cable operators represented by the American Cable Association have told the Federal Communications Commission that they would be willing to offer some a la carte tiers, but first they need to be freed from the restrictions of a "handful of media conglomerates" whose "unrestrained market power" is the real cause of Washington's concerns about choice, cost and content.

AT the prompting of Senator John McCain and others, the FCC has opened an inquiry into the feasibility of requiring the cable industry to offer its services on a per-channel basis or in more flexible packages. Driving the effort are concerns over cable bills, prompted in part by a recent and very public war over ESPN pricing, and by Washington's concern over indecency and ways to give viewers more choice over channels.

ACA agreed with other cable operators that a "pure" a la carte regimen is untenable for its smaller operators because of the cost., but it said that its members could offer sports tiers, adult tiers, children's tiers and a la carte access to high cost channels if the "media Conglomerates" (it never named any) didn't require them to distribute nearly all of the biggest channels to all their subs, and to carry less desirable channels.

ACA President Matt Polka said that another problem was retransmission consent deals that allow "media conglomerates" to tie carriage of local TV stations cable systems need to carriage of co-owned cable nets they might not want. "The use of retransmission consent in this manner results in nearly all customers having to purchase basic or expanded basic packages filled with channels owned by these conglomerates, limiting a cable company's ability to meet its customers viewing needs," he said.

ACA said that nondisclosure provisions in programming contracts helped keep the strong-arm tactics under wraps, and told the FCC that, as part of its a la carte inquiry, it should force big media companies to reveal those terms if they won't waive their confidentiality restrictions.

ACA's conclusion: "Either the media conglomerates need to stop restricting how we offer channels and cease wholesale price discrimination, or Congress and the FCC will need to do it for them, Polka said.

The House Telecommunications Subcommittee is holding a hearing on a la carte Wednesday.