TV menu changing?

<I>A la carte</I> remains cable biz talking point

Federal regulators made cablers happy Monday, telling them at their annual convention that the FCC favors market solutions over governmental intervention.

In particular, commission officials evoked warm and fuzzy feelings after conceding that a la carte subscription services, a measure favored by FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin, haven’t yet gained traction within the agency.

Recently the FCC released a report claiming, contrary to longstanding cable industry claims, that a la carte could benefit subscribers. But last week a congressional report disputed that conclusion.

“There are still no answers on a la carte,” said commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, speaking to a packed luncheon Monday. “Does a la carte achieve more competition and result in lower rates? The answer is a resounding ‘We don’t know yet.’ ”

A la carte debate has been fueled in large part by parents groups complaining of cable fare inappropriate for children; they want to be able to purchase only those channels they want. Despite existing blocking and filtering technology, Martin has pressed the industry to do more.

However, Adelstein suggested future changes in the market might make that unnecessary.

“As things become more and more digital,” he said, “the FCC will have limited authority” over indecent content as more and better blocking technologies are developed. The FCC’s mandate is to intervene in markets always by the least intrusive means.

Later, during a panel discussion, Heather Dixon, Martin’s legal adviser on media issues, emphasized that the chairman “believes market-driven forces are the best way to achieve consumer benefits.” He maintains the FCC’s general role should be limited to “addressing issues the market sometimes doesn’t, like public safety,” she said.

“There’s a lot of discussion right now” about a la carte, Dixon said, because Martin “wants consumers to have more choices.” But, she conceded, it’s unclear where the agency is headed with the issue.

“We still don’t know what impact a la carte would have on diversity and small channels,” said Rudy Brioche, legal adviser to Adelstein, another member of the panel.

Adelstein, Dixon and Brioche all exhorted the cable industry to play a stronger role in helping get word out about the coming conversion to digital television, scheduled for February 2009.