Politics & Policy

À La Carte Cable Concerns

Beware more command-and-control federal mandates falsely packaged as "market-based" reforms.

In his recent NRO essay, “Cable, à la Carte?“, Cesar Conda suggested that “conservatives of all stripes should commend FCC Chairman [Kevin] Martin for using the enlightening power of the Bully Pulpit, instead of the coercive power of government mandates” to get cable and satellite operators to provide “family-friendly” tiers of programming. Conda also argued that such options “are prohibited by current contracts between the television distributors and programmers,” and that à la carte regulations might be necessary to rectify this situation. À la carte mandates would force cable and satellite operators to sell each channel separately instead as part of a broader bundle of channels.

This seems like a curious theory of conservatism. To begin, conservatives typically oppose the use of the so-called “enlightening power of the Bully Pulpit,” which involves government shaking down private companies for favors. For example, when regulators play this game on the environmental or labor policy fronts, conservatives rightly cry foul. After all, the result being coerced from them is hardly “voluntary;” those firms are only acting because they are facing harsher penalties if they choose not to act.

The same thing is at work in the à la carte debate. Recently, cable operators announced “voluntary” family-friendly tiers of programming, but only after the FCC’s Martin and several members of Congress threatened more burdensome à la carte mandates unless action was forthcoming. Such behavior should not be commended by conservatives. Equally disturbing is Conda’s suggestion to have government abrogate the private contacts between television distributors and programmers in imposing à la carte mandates. This is hardly a sensible conservative approach to communications policy.

But Conda, like Martin, suggests that it is a sensible approach because the ends justify the means in this case. Each argues that this is a debate about a consumer’s “right” to choose the programming he or she wants and the ability of parents to protect their children from objectionable programming.

This too is at odds with traditional conservative thinking. First, conservatives typically do not subscribe to such an expansive view of rights. Conda and Martin seem to assume that citizens have the “right” to receive video programming on any terms they wish (at least as defined and enforced by federal regulators). But by what right does anyone in government decide how cable or satellite television services — which remain a luxury item and not a birthright entitlement — get priced or packaged in this country? Until the Constitution is amended to say otherwise, no one has the “right” to call upon government to upend an industry’s private business arrangements and substitute in its place a grand industrial policy scheme in the name of “consumer choice.”

Their second rationale for à la carte regulation centers around the need to “protect the children” from objectionable programming. But no one is forcing this programming upon us. Parents have to spend good money — typically over $50 a month — to bring cable or satellite into their homes. Once they do so, they should not expect the government to play the role of surrogate parent and dictate programming standards.

Moreover, there already exist myriad ways to block the programming parents don’t want in their home. Any channel on cable or satellite can be easily blocked using set-top box controls or the V-chip now included in TVs. Thus, parental responsibility seems like the superior conservative approach to this issue.

Finally, Conda and Martin ignore the potential downside of new federal rules. Conservatives typically oppose such mandates because of the potential unintended consequences of bureaucratic market-meddling. In this case, the costs associated with à la carte regulation could be steep in terms of true consumer choice and program diversity. If regulators mandate the “unbundling” of cable and satellite tiers and make it a federal crime for video programmers to sell channels as part of package, it could mean that many niche and minority-oriented channels will go under. Most family-oriented and religious programmers oppose à la carte mandates for this reason. They understand that their programs only attract a small subset of the overall universe of viewers. If their networks are not bundled alongside other channels, or included in the basic tier, they might disappear entirely.

In sum, there is no such thing as a free lunch or a costless regulation. True market reform would involve greater FCC deregulation of the video marketplace to encourage more market entry and greater programming options. Proposed à la carte cures, by contrast, are just more command-and-control federal mandates falsely packaged as “market-based” reforms.

Adam Thierer is a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundationin Washington, D.C.


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