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FCC Slates a la Carte Confab

The Federal Communications Commission has scheduled a cable a la carte powwow for July 29 at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Following a request from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Senator John McCain and members of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee that it explore the feasibility of requiring cable to deliver its services on a per-channel basis, the FCC late last month put out a request for comment on the issue.

The July 29 forum will bring various interested commenters together to discuss a la carte's implications for consumer prices, retransmission consent, programming diversity, and its effects on rural and smaller markets.

McCain has been a long-time critic of rising cable prices and has suggested the per-channel approach might help. In addition, giving subscribers the ability to exclude racy fare, which has gained currency during the recent hubbub over indecency, provided additional momentum to the a la carte issue.

Also contributing to the inquiry was a hearing on cable prices last year in which Cablevision's Charles Dolan and Cox's James Robbins, then in a battle with ESPN over fees, said that cable had the technological wherewithal to offer more "nuanced" choices and that if operators were allowed to put expensive sports channels (like ESPN) on separate tiers, it might help keep prices under control.

Critics of the plan say that a la carte messes with cable's fundamental economic model, undercutting niche channels and adversely affecting program diversity.