House Debates a la Carte on Cable

A House subcommittee plunged into the politically charged world of a la carte programming Wednesday, taking in a wide spectrum of opinions on a regulatory issue that has gained currency on Capitol Hill, with some lawmakers concerned about cable rates and others about indecent programming.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said he was unlikely to support any kind of a la carte mandate, claiming that the status quo is serving the country well.

“The current business model upon which video programming and distribution relies has evolved over many years and has brought enormous benefits to the consumer,” Upton said.

Other lawmakers said that although they might not support a la carte mandates, they would like cable to take voluntary steps in that direction so that parents can be sure that kids don’t view indecent programming when they are trying to locate cartoons.

Time Warner Cable president Thomas Baxter testified that mandated a la carte would require cable systems to scramble every channel and charge consumers for each set-top box they wanted to use to view cable networks, with the result being higher cable rates.

He added that customers didn’t need a la carte to keep out offensive programming.

“What I do is black out the programming,” Baxter said, adding that cable provides blocking technology free-of-charge.

Alfred Liggins, chairman of TV One -- a start-up cable network aimed at adult African Americans, with 4 million subscribers -- said the channel would not survive in an a la carte world because the service would not obtain sufficient penetration to be commercially viable.

Forced a la carte, he said, would have a “devastating effect,” causing his network and others like it to fail.

Janet LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women for America, said cable’s mandatory purchase of large tiers effectively required consumers to pay for offensive programming in order to obtain the channels they wanted -- something rarely seen in other markets.

“We don’t have to pay for food we don’t intend to eat,” she added, demanding new legislation in the absence of industry action.

Ben Hooks, CEO of Buford Media Group LLC, a cable company with 50,000 subscribers, said large media conglomerates effectively forced him to carry programming he didn’t want -- a system that should be dismantled.

“I could make better choices for my customers if I had some flexibility,” Hooks said, adding that big programmers hog channel space that he would like to allocate to Spanish-language programming.