Falwell’s 11th Commandment: No a la Carte

The a la carte sale of cable channels would likely put religious broadcasters out of business, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said Wednesday on the eve of the release of an important federal-agency study on the issue.

“Though well-intentioned, the fact is that a la carte would threaten the very existence of religious broadcasting and the vital ministry conducted over the television airwaves,” said Falwell, president of the Old Time Gospel Hour.

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to release its a la carte report Thursday to members of Congress who requested it. Lawmakers asked the commission to determine whether greater per-channel offerings would lower cable rates and assist parents in keeping out indecent programming.

The cable industry has broadly condemned a la carte, claiming that it would devastate the established business model of providing large programming tiers to maximize both license-fee and advertising revenue.

Small, niche networks -- some with an orientation toward minority groups -- have argued that an a la carte world would kill them off and prevent similar networks from ever launching.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) are doubters. They have accused cable of imposing a one-size-fits-all regime on subscribers, forcing grandmothers to buy expensive networks like ESPN when they have no interest in sports.

Small cable operators, led by the American Cable Association, have accused Time Warner Inc., News Corp., General Electric Co., The Walt Disney Co. and Viacom Inc. of using their economic clout to force distribution of their programming in large bundles with built-in rate increases that put upward price pressure on all cable customers.

ACA members want the right to purchase wholesale programming a la carte and the flexibility to retail that programming any way they way -- either a la carte or, more likely, in thematic tiers.

Falwell was joined by nine other ministers in speaking out against the evils of a la carte, including the Rev. Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network and Pastor John Hagee of John Hagee Ministries.

Their joint release said a la carte would frustrate the effort of evangelical Christians to spread their message.

“In a world in which people preselect either in or out of religious broadcasts, that mission would be greatly compromised. Either they would be preaching to the choir, or not at all. Any broadcast seeking to reach out will fail under a la carte,” said Colby May, Washington-office director of the American Center for Law and Justice.

Fears that a la carte mandates would harm broadcasters, religious and otherwise, might be misplaced.

The National Association of Broadcasters told the FCC TV stations are exempt from any a la carte rules because the 1992 Cable Act mandated that every cable subscriber purchase all TV stations on the system.

The NAB did not take a position on whether providing cable and satellite

programming a la carte would advance the public interest.

A la carte is not a totally alien concept in the pay TV world. FCC rules permit direct-broadcast satellite carriers to offer local TV stations a la carte in certain circumstances. The NAB fought those rules, but a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit backed the agency's decision.