FCC Gets a la Carte Letter from House

The a la carte fight entered a new phase Wednesday as key House members asked the Federal Communications Commission to study the practicalities of providing consumers with the right to pick their programming on a channel-by-channel basis.

The three-page letter -- which asked the FCC to respond to detailed questions by Nov. 18 -- specifically addressed whether cable companies could voluntarily offer a la carte options alongside traditional basic and expanded-basic tiers.

The bipartisan letter was signed by Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Energy and Commerce ranking member John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member of Upton’s panel.

Also signatory was Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), who favors requiring programmers to allow cable and satellite distributors to purchase networks a la carte, although the distributors would be under no obligation to retail channels that way.

The lawmakers said they were turning to the FCC because they did not have sufficient information to evaluate a la carte proposals that have surfaced in recent weeks. “Therefore, committee members desire insight from the FCC to assist them in forming their judgments about these issues,” the letter said.

An FCC spokeswoman said the agency routinely complies with such requests. “It would be highly unusual for the FCC to deny a request from one of our governing committees in Congress,” she said.

The cable industry is going all-out to stop any a la carte mandate, claiming that tiering works best for programmers, operators and consumers. The industry pointed to the October 2003 General Accounting Office report, which indicated that a la carte could lead to higher rates and fewer programming choices.

Last month, Kenneth Ferree, chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, who undoubtedly will have a hand in the a la carte study, said he was an “unabashed fan” of a la carte. However, FCC chairman Michael Powell declined to endorse that view.