It takes a village to pay the cable bill

Honesty is always in short supply when Hollywood and Washington cross paths, which might explain why the cable industry’s capitulation on providing “family-friendly” program tiers is enough to leave consumers feeling a little loopy.

Attempting to blunt criticism from indecency warriors and an FCC with too much time on its hands, cable’s limited family packages appear cynical even for the Hollywood-D.C. mating dance, creating bundles only a mother could love — quite literally, since no self-respecting kid would watch them.

CNN is included, but no other cable news? No ESPN at all? (Well, athletes do tend to curse a lot.) Discovery and Food? If seven people sign up for Time Warner and Comcast’s version of family-friendliness, it would be an upset.

Then again, being friendly to families isn’t motivating this discussion, and everyone knows it. The cable choice brouhaha doesn’t hinge on paying only for what you want, but rather on not paying for that which morality scolds wish to stamp out. The problem is that cable systems, entrenched in years of monopolistic arrogance, have never bothered to explain why providing a surplus of options might benefit their customers, instead just piling on obscure digital channels and padding bills.

Seriously, though, children under 12 account for less than 15% of the U.S. population, meaning adults unencumbered by kids represent a decided majority. So assuming there’s some rationale for allowing viewers to purchase only that which they’re apt to use, the real push from a consumer standpoint should be for a “family-frosty” tier — one that eliminates the chewy goodness and animated bliss that the child-free are forced to help underwrite.

Granted, the children are our future, and Hillary Clinton suggests we’re all responsible for helping raise them. It’s not so clear, however, why everyone has to chip in when it comes to keeping them entertained.

When it gets down to picking and choosing, then, why should concerned parents alone have a voice? What about grownups who don’t want to risk stumbling across the too-chipper teens who populate the Disney Channel, or never want to see “Dora the Explorer” again?

Should fans of “Deadwood” be compelled to underwrite sappy Hallmark Channel movies that offend our coarsened, vulgar sensibilities? Hell, the mere sight of big-eyed anime characters makes my teeth ache. And, for that matter, how do I ensure Pat Robertson never earns a penny from my cable bill, unless he personally heals my sore shoulder?

In truth, paying for channels I don’t regularly watch doesn’t strike me as a major hardship. Just because I don’t read the Science or Outdoor section and the guy across the street doesn’t read Sports doesn’t mean we should all start prorating our newspaper bills. A certain amount of inefficiency is built into such systems.

Still, cable channels haven’t helped their cause by jettisoning neatly defined brands as they engage in a crazed scrum to attract younger demos, mucking up their own alphabet soup in the process.

As a consequence, it’s not just right-wing zealots who wince at their cable tab on ethical grounds. Indeed, as one TV industry veteran groused in a recent email, “What happened to the promise of thought-provoking, quality programming that A&E, Discovery, the Learning Channel, Bravo and their like were supposed to provide? … I pay $80 a month for television. Why can’t I get programming on these niche channels that I would genuinely want to watch (or would at least pay to have the option to watch)? And why do I have to pay for these channels and their crap just so I can get good reception, ESPN and HBO?”

Put that way, it’s hard to argue.

Unfortunately, dealing with cable is a lot like government. Sure, everyone pays taxes to keep the wheels churning, but no taxpayer possesses individual veto power over which federal programs he chooses to support.

Then again, that’s probably just as well. Under a “Consumer Cozy” Regulatory Tier, I’d begin by withholding my funding from the FCC.

* * *

Speaking of programs that tend to get morality watchdogs hot and bothered, “Nip/Tuck” closed its third season last week, and the FX drama’s creative high-wire act finally suffered a shark-jumping tumble.

Piling twist upon twist and nastiness upon nastiness, the two-hour finale was a muddled mess, the antithesis of last season’s brilliant cliffhanger.

While the show can certainly rebound, the episode offers a stark reminder of how delicate an operation sustaining these serialized dramas can be — and how, with one unfortunate slip, a real beauty can turn downright ugly.

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