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Martin: A la Carte Benefits Diversity

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin Wednesday defended his stand for a la carte, saying he believed it could benefit, not reduce, diversity. But he also apologized for upsetting civil-rights groups who complained about comments he made at an Aspen Institute forum last week

While he did not disassociate himself from his reference to the suggestion that civil-rights groups were oppposing a la carte due to financial backing by cable companies, he said the conclusion he had been referrring to came from a Center for Public Integrity study he referenced at the conference in response to a question (he included the study in the letter).

Quoting from the study, Martin's letter said: "That study concluded: 'The grassroots opposition to a la carte is actually a highly sophisticated lobby campaign where seemingly disinterested third parties -- like nonprofits and legislators -- are spreading the anti-a la carte message using minority programming as the key issue. In fact, rather than being disinterested, these third parties have much to gain. The Center has identified hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and other benefits showered by cable companies on some of these nonprofits.'"

"I would like to express that I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the work and views expressed by your organizations," he wrote in his letter, "and I apologize if my recent comments led some to believe otherwise." That response did not sit well with the groups, who had scheduled a conference call for Thursday afternoon to "express [our] dissatisfaction with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s attempt to apologize for publicly questioning their integrity and commitment in opposing federal a la carte pricing rules for cable television."

In his letter, Martin took issue with the suggestion that a la carte would make it harder for niche networks to get and keep carriage. He suggested that it was tough under the current system for networks to get carriage, citing a Washington Post story that V-Me, a new digital Spanish-language channel in Maryland, was not yet offered to two-thirds of the Hispanic population in the state because Comcast "refused to carry it." He said that under an a la carte regime, "niche networks would be able to demonstrate support for their programming to advertisers by pointing to the actual a la carte sales of their networks.

Comcast took issue with the "refusal" characterization. "Comcast, in fact, carries V-Me in more than a dozen markets around the country," the company said in a statement. "V-Me is not a Maryland Spanish language channel - it is a national programming service that is made available to public broadcasters to carry as part of their digital multicast service.  The reason V-Me is not available in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. is because WETA (the Washington-area public broadcasting station) has not yet picked up this service.  When and if they do, it will be immediately available to all Comcast customers in the market".

Martin maintained that Spanish-speaking homes might be the biggest beneficiaries of a la carte. "Currently, cable and satellite providers often require subscribers to purchase dozens, if not hundreds, of channels in order to get Spanish-language programming," he said, "for which they must pay an additional cost. Under a la carte, however, he added, Spanish-speaking homes could purchase only Spanish-language programming.

Martin also cited the move by Black Family Channel to the Internet because of the difficulty of getting carriage, which its CEO had likened to "scheduling a ride to the moon."

Martin said he had and would continue to advocate for all consumers, including mintorities, which he said he was doing by pushing a policy that lowers cable bills and giving them more choice in programming.

Martin included a copy of the Center for Public Integrity study in his letter to the groups. A spokesman for the groups -- which included the Black Leadership Forum and Hispanic Federation -- was still assessing the response at press time.