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Under Siege, Cable 'Voluntarily' Offers Family Tiers

If the purpose of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's recent remarks on Capitol Hill about the feasibility of cable a la carte for consumers was to scare the cable industry into doing something fast about giving parents some control over unsuitable content for kids, he succeeded.

It only took a matter of days to consider, devise and announce a general outline, but this week the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said several large cable operators representing more than half the subs in the United States will offer family-friendly tiers (virtually all of them among digital channels, not analog).

The MSOs will "voluntarily" start selling family-friendly tiers of channels as one way of avoiding a la carte (at least for the moment). Whether family-friendly tiers would include HD fare very likely would be based on content, too, like other channels. But like newer SD channels still trying to make their way in the world and build some respective audiences to impress advertisers, new or niche HD channels might have a difficult time surviving either a family-friendly or a la carte universe.

In a Senate Commerce Committee Dec. 12 hearing on indecency, NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow said the following operators are ready now to offer family-friendly packages: Time Warner Cable, Bresnan Communications, Midcontinent Media, Advance/Newhouse Communications, and Insight Communications. Comcast, conspicuously, will only consider such a scenario, according to some published reports.

The cable industry's action coming at lightning speed (relatively speaking) was nothing short of breathtaking to most observers, given the fact that this huge and diverse industry (much like the huge and diverse broadcasting industry) has been known to take years to consider controversial issues before taking any type of collective action.

Lightning speed, perhaps, but not surprising, since cable has argued that being forced into offering a la carte cable to individual subs would inevitably lead to higher cable rates. (Perhaps the FCC noticed that this seems to happen anyway on an annual basis; Comcast already has announced a 6-percent rate increase for its stand-alone TV service for 2006, for reasons having nothing to do with a la carte.)

The NCTA has quoted the Government Accountability Office in a 2003 opinion as stating that a la carte could result in higher prices for fewer channels. So cable may not like family tiers, per se, but they like it a whole lot better than across-the-board a la carte imposed by Congress and the FCC.

And in a late development this week, eight members of the House Commerce Committee are raising concerns over whether retransmission consent negotiations are resulting in parental concerns over inappropriate fare for kids. In a letter to FCC Chairman Martin, the bipartisan group of lawmakers said, "We have heard that some networks mandate that to gain carriage for children's programming often requires carriage of adult content on the same tier. That situation seems questionable at best, and may be one of the core reasons our constituents are not satisfied with their viewing options."

Even some proponents of family-friendly tiers seem to acknowledge there may be some unforeseen problems yet to be fully explored. For example, some of today's mainstream broadcast content such as "CSI" (CBS), "Will & Grace" (NBC), "Desperate Housewives" (ABC) and daily war and crime coverage on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel may not be deemed suitable by parents for their young children (not to mention the far more explicit and violent fare available on cable and premium cable). So, in a household strictly and technically limited to family-friendly options only, what TV content do the adults watch after the kids have gone to bed?