Skip to main content

Finding A Clean Solution

There's no answer yet to the question: What would be on a “family tier” of cable-TV programming.

Five years ago, the satellite service DirecTV Inc. launched a family tier which included Boomerang, SoapNet, Oxygen, Biography Channel, Discovery Kids Channel, PBS Kids Channel, Do It Yourself Network and Odyssey Network (now Hallmark Channel), all for $5. The tier was taken off the air in 2002.

The current expectation, based on interviews with industry executives: A “family choice” tier of programming that comprises channels found on the basic analog tier of cable programming and a new digital tier of family-oriented fare. The combination would likely cost between the $10 typically charged for broadcast basic and the $40 charged for expanded basic.

What the digital component of a “family choice” package could include is anybody's guess, as cable executives first scurry to figure out whether their contracts with programmers and delivery systems will allow them to put together family tiers.

Likely safe to include: “G-rated” programming, from Disney Channel to Nickelodeon to ABC Family to Hallmark Channel.

“There's probably enough of those around that you could do 15 or 20 channels,” said one Comcast executive, who requested anonymity.

And although it could limit the reach of some networks, not all programmers would oppose being included in the 'family choice.'

Hurdles remain, such as:

  • Dealing with duplication of networks: Some, like Discovery Channel, Disney Channel and Hallmark Channel, could be in both expanded-basic and family tiers. Some networks may be only available in a family tier.
  • Including digital set-top boxes: If family programming is put on a digital tier, subscribers will need boxes to decrypt those channels. Less than half of cable subscribers to most major MSOs have them.
  • Dealing with “mixed” households: Some families might want the 'family choice' to be beamed into the living room, but receive a more complete lineup in the bedroom. The usual method of blocking fare, tiny taps on cable lines known as traps, might not permit that.
  • Clauses in contracts: The big one. Networks such as ESPN that mandate that networks be placed only on the most widely distributed programming tier.
  • Viewership: If only 1% of homes sign up, what would have been the point?

“The likelihood of this having any kind of broad appeal is pretty hard to imagine,” said one senior executive at one of the 10 largest operators.