A coalition of consumer groups and social conservatives wants the federal government to force cable companies to offer consumers “à la carte” programming — i.e., the purchase of individual channels rather than bundles of them. These groups have a powerful advocate in Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin. Martin does not currently have the authority to grant their wishes, but he is seeking it. At an FCC meeting Tuesday night, three of his fellow commissioners thwarted his latest attempt to gain new regulatory power over the cable industry, but he has promised to revisit the issue. Instead, Martin should abandon this particular crusade. While we are sympathetic to parents’ desire to get the channels they want without having to buy access to racier fare, using economic regulation to restructure an industry is the wrong approach.
For TV programmers, the practice of bundling channels together works well. Religious and minority-oriented channels can piggyback on the popularity of the sports and news channels. This is why the Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition, a group of the nation’s leading religious broadcasters, opposes efforts to impose à la carte programming. Not enough consumers who currently subscribe to the basic-cable bundle would buy religious programming under an à la carte model.
All channels thus benefit from the bundling model, which allows them to access households that might not otherwise be interested in their programming. For this reason, TV programmers have signed contracts with cable companies that prohibit à la carte sales. Forcing the cable companies to ignore these agreements would amount to a wholesale overwriting of private contractual arrangements. Supporters of à la carte have failed to demonstrate a need for such dirigisme. If consumer demand for à la carte options is sufficiently strong, there is no structural impediment to the market’s satisfaction of it.
Some social conservatives argue that parents should be able to buy the Disney Channel without having to let MTV’s 24-hour sleaze-a-thon into their homes. But parents who wish to shield their children from immoral influences are not without options. They can monitor their children’s viewing, block channels, or forgo cable (or television) altogether. We realize that the existence of these options falls short of a comprehensive solution to the difficulties of raising children in a culture that sometimes seems hostile to the enterprise. But the answer is not a mandate that would trample private contract rights and drive religious programming off the air.
Nevertheless, Kevin Martin has pressed forward in his attempts either to force the cable companies to adopt an à la carte model or to scare them into doing so. At Tuesday’s meeting he tried to use an arcane provision of federal communications law to declare the cable market uncompetitive and subject to more FCC regulation. This would arguably give the FCC power to impose à la carte pricing, though it would be challenged in court. But even without that authority, the FCC would still have more power to make the cable companies miserable until they acceded to Martin’s demands.
Fortunately, a majority of his fellow commissioners saw things differently and scuttled the plan. But Martin has signaled that he intends to persist. He does not seem to grasp that the government cannot just pick and choose, à la carte, which private contracts it intends to honor.