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McCain Introduces a la Carte Bill

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) Thursday took to the Senate floor to introduce his a la carte bill, the Television Consumer Freedom Act.

According to McCain, the bill will "encourage the wholesale and retail 'unbundling' of programming by distributors and programmers; establish consequences if broadcasters choose to 'downgrade' their over-the-air service; and eliminate the sports blackout rule for events held in publicly-financed stadiums."

The bill requires programmers to make their channels available to cable operators on an a la carte basis, does not allow the bundling of co-owned cable channels and TV stations in carriage negotiations, gets rid of the sports blackout rule for stadiums built with any public money and requires a broadcaster to deliver to cable operators a signal identical to the ones they deliver over the air -- with a carve-out for local commercials of up to a minute -- or have their license pulled and their spectrum reassigned.

McCain hammered on cable prices, as he has done for more than a decade, but said his bill would "put up a stop sign."

Lobbyists speaking on background all suggested that the bill would not go far, but would prompt debate at next week's state of video hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee.

As first reported by B&C/Multi, the bill promotes -- some would say forces -- a la carte by tying it to the compulsory license. "[I]f the MVPD does not offer a broadcast station - and any other channels owned by the broadcaster - on an a la carte basis," McCain said, "the MVPD cannot rely on the compulsory license to carry those broadcast stations. The compulsory license is a benefit conferred on MVPDs. So, it's reasonable to ask the recipients of that benefit to provide consumers with an a la carte option."

The bill also puts pressure on broadcasters with co-owned cable channels. It says that unless they allow their channels, cable and broadcast, to be sold a la carte, they will lose their "important regulatory benefits" like "network non-duplication, syndicated exclusivity, blackout rights and retransmission consent option."

The bill would also require parties who can't agree to a carriage deal to provide their last offer to the FCC.

The cable and satellite operators doing business as the American Television Alliance did not exactly endorse the bill, but they did associate themselves with the effort as far as it was "recognizing the real and growing problem of outdated video regulations," calling it a "creative" solution and saying it was sure to generate further discussion and debate.