FCC chief plugs cable a la carte

Martin says he's cable's pal

LAS VEGAS — Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin J. Martin tried to reassure a dubious cable television industry on Monday that he’s not a foe and is open to the sector’s regulatory concerns.

Delivering a keynote speech at the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn.’s annual convention, Martin began by observing that it was something of a “surprise” to be asked to address the cable confab.

Martin said that given a spate of recent media reports on differences between him and the industry — particularly on a la carte subscriptions, which he has been pushing — he wasn’t sure he would be invited even to attend, much less speak.

“I’d like to set the record straight,” he said. “I don’t dislike cable. Quite the contrary. I’m an avid consumer of cable. I subscribe to digital cable, have three set-top boxes, two DVRs, high-speed access and Wi-Fi all provided by cable.”

In fact, Martin was feeling so friendly toward the industry that he dropped a major point from his speech, according to prepared remarks posted on the FCC’s Web site, urging the industry to consider embracing the a la carte subscription model as a means of giving consumers greater control over the content — particularly violent programming — that they receive.

The FCC pushed cablers’ buttons and stirred cries of First Amendment violations late last month with the release of its report on TV violence, which came with a recommendation that the industry embrace a la carte as opposed to the channel-bundling model that has been the standard for decades (Daily Variety, April 26).

“While the Constitution protects the right to speak, it certainly doesn’t protect a right to get paid for that speech,” Martin’s speech read, according to the prepared remarks.

After Martin delivered his speech, an FCC spokeswoman said the comments were dropped strictly for time purposes.

Martin preached to the choir in Vegas on several matters on which he and the cable lobby have agreed. While acknowledging that he and the industry don’t always “see eye to eye,” he stressed that he would “always give you a fair hearing.”

Besides a la carte, Martin has also pushed cablers for multicast must-carry, which would require them to carry up to six digital channels that a broadcaster will be able to transmit. Cablers want to carry only one channel and have been adamantly opposed to a la carte subs, saying they’re economically infeasible. Martin disputes that claim.

During his speech, Martin hailed cablers for having spent hundreds of billions of dollars in developing new infrastructure, singling out for praise pay TV’s increasing deployment of broadband services and its relatively recent entry into phone service.

Competition in the latter market has improved notably as a result, Martin added.

He pointed out that he supported Time Warner on its concerns about interconnection rights. And he agrees with the industry that no need exists for any kind of so-called Net neutrality legislation, which would require Internet service providers to treat users and content sites equally.

“I agreed with the cable industry that you should not be required to open your broadband network to competitors at wholesale rates,” Martin continued. “I agree that the government should also refrain from imposing taxes on broadband service, and I support exempting them from franchise fees. I agree with the cable industry that your broadband services should not be subject to universal service fees that would be used to subsidize your telephone company competitors.”

But Martin did not shy away from addressing differences. He said he was a firm believer that consumers should buy only what they want. He said the issue of a la carte is “becoming more important as expanded basic cable rates have almost doubled” in the last 10 years.

He also said multicast must-carry is good for consumers because they would be able to have even more choices among channels to receive. He chided the industry for its argument that consumers should determine whether they want the additional channels.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Martin said, referring to the industry’s opposition to a la carte. If consumers should be able to decide which channels they want, they should be able to have a la carte subscriptions, Martin implied.

He concluded by trying to emphasize that he has a “simple” regulatory philosophy that aims to promote consumer benefits and technical innovation. Sometimes that means voting to deregulate or to uphold an existing regulation, he said.

“I recognize that the commission is currently working on a number of proceedings of great importance to your industry,” Martin said. “I urge you, in the coming months, to have an open dialogue with us. Although I cannot promise that we will ultimately see things your way on every issue and in each proceeding, I can promise you a fair hearing, serious consideration of your viewpoints and, above all, a lively debate.”

At a press conference after Martin’s address, a group of top cable execs — including Comcast No. 2 Steve Burke and Time Warner Cable topper Glenn Britt — declined to answer a reporter’s question about their feelings on the FCC chairman’s remarks, instead deferring to NCTA prexy-chief exec Kyle McSlarrow.

McSlarrow said the industry believes that, as a privately financed business, cable should not be mandated by government to offer networks a la carte.

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