Studios Pan a La Carte

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin's support for a plan to regulate providers of cable programming isn't causing Hollywood studios to shout hooray.

The Motion Picture Association of America is calling Martin's plan “radical intrusion into the program market” that is predicated on the wrongheaded belief that the FCC knows better than the market “what is best for consumers.”

Small cable operators that belong to the American Cable Association have urged Martin to take on the big programmers on a host of issues to level the competitive playing field.

Meanwhile, an ad hoc group that includes AT&T and DirecTV is pressing Martin to ensure that its members can obtain access to a Philadelphia regional sports network owned by Comcast.

Martin's most controversial proposal would, for example, force The Walt Disney Co. and News Corp. — both MPAA members — to allow cable and satellite TV distributors to purchase channels on an individual basis, also called the wholesale a la carte plan. Although Martin might allow programmers to offer bundles, he would not favor the offering of bundles on a strict take-it-or-leave-it basis.

“The current expanding program-access environment suggests a need for less, rather than more, government intervention and regulation of the program marketplace,” the MPAA told the FCC in Feb. 12 comments.

Distributors with problems regarding the terms and conditions on the access to programming need to rely on antitrust laws, not to the FCC, for relief.

“To the extent that any of the alleged tying or bundling practices cause harm, the antitrust laws provide more than adequate redress,” the MPAA said.

A group of consumers has filed an antitrust suit related to the retail availability of cable channels a la carte in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The first court date is March 10.

Cable programmers sued, including Viacom and Disney, joined sued cable operators Comcast and Time Warner Cable in arguing in court briefs that the plaintiffs don't have legal standing to sue.