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FCC chairman supports cable a la carte

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin suggested last week that a la carte pay TV pricing would be a way to help parents shield children from indecent program content.

Speaking at a Congressional forum on decency issues in Washington, Martin put a new spin on a contentious issue by suggesting that per-channel pricing by cable and satellite operators would be a way to support his campaign against inappropriate content. He also called for operators to offer family-friendly program packages.

Martin also urged Congress to grant the FCC authority to regulate pay TV content just as it does with over-the-air broadcast content.

Martin contradicted a 2004 FCC study that determined a la carte pricing would result in consumers paying higher subscription television rates. Citing a new FCC study, Martin called the initial report problematic and at times biased. He said it was now unlikely that per channel pricing would drive up subscription rates.

A proponent of strong content control before becoming FCC chairman, Martin urged that cable and satellite operators voluntarily adopt the same indecency standards that the FCC now requires of over-the-air broadcasters.

The chairman’s remarks set the stage for what could become a battle over free speech and the constitutional rights of pay media providers. The pay television industry has long argued that a la carte pricing would result in less income and the cancellation of many lower profile niche channels.

As to indecency, the industry argues that consumers have the ability to block channels they don’t want and that any government-mandated content restrictions would result in a violation of free speech.

Kyle McSlarrow, head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said any government mandate is a violation of the First Amendment.

In a related development that indicated Congress might not be willing to take on Martin’s cause, Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) said his committee, who sponsored the indecency forum, will not consider legislation to raise fines for broadcast indecency due to lack of sufficient support.

A formal Senate hearing on broadcast indecency has been scheduled for Jan. 19, 2006.