The cable industry is dancing as fast as it can to avoid a forced a la carte regime, but not fast enough for its most strident critics. Time Warner Cable unveiled its version of a family tier, to the resounding catcalls of the Parents Television Council.
"This is a very bad joke," said PTC chief Brent Bozell in a statement. "I bet you couldn't find five employees of Time Warner who would subscribe to this foolishness for their own families."
TWC is the first cable operator to unveil a family tier in the wake of the ongoing legislative hysteria over content indecency. Not quite three weeks ago, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin raised the specter of a la carte channel pricing as a back-door approach to subjecting cable content to indecency regulations. Unless... Martin suggested, cable might want to take him seriously about creating family tiers, and darned if it didn't.
Within two weeks of Martin's big idea, cable lobby chief Kyle McSlarrow appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee co-chairmen and said six cable companies would roll out family tiers: Comcast, the mother of all cable companies with 22 million subscribers; TWC with 11 million; Advance Newhouse, 2.1 million; Insight, 1.3 million; Bresnan, 300,000-plus and Midcontinent, 200,000. (The pending split of Adelphia's subscribers would put Comcast at about 24 million and TWC at around 14.5 million.)
TWC went first and proceeded to take heat for its tier, which includes Boomerang, Discovery Kids, The Science Channel, Disney Channel, Toon Disney, Nick Games & Sports, La Familia, The Weather Channel, C-SPAN2, C-SPAN3, Headline News, DIY, Food Network, HGTV, Fox Cable and Fit TV.
"According to Time Warner, no family should want to watch sports... [or] receive any news channel other than Time Warner's CNN," Bozell's statement continued. "According to Time Warner, classic movies are not appropriate for families. And neither is religious programming."
Bozell repeated his support of a la carte pricing. A la carte strikes fear into the heart of the cable industry because it would A) unravel a labyrinth of complex network carriage contracts, and B) sink a few fringe networks that reach just enough eyeballs to survive.
Time Warner's criteria for the family package nets included sporting a 24-hour G rating, customer recognition and no live programming. Selection of the family pack would preclude a subscriber from getting ESPN, Discovery and other popular cable nets. TWC did not respond by deadline about overall pricing. The tier itself is priced at $12.99, and Reuters reported that it would cost at least $33--$8 for a digital set-top and $12 on average for basic cable service. However, basic digital cable in Manhattan is priced at $39.95, according to a resident who called TWC customer service. Another $13 for the family tier would come to around $53 there.
Aside from the criticism of the PTC, which has led the complaint campaign against indecency, there are lingering questions about whether anyone would buy a family tier. Jay Allen posed a tier versus a la carte question on www.bloggingbaby.com and got a handful of responses, including these:
"In Japan we have both [options] and it is nice to be able to pick and choose. Problem is, the packages are much cheaper. If you pay individually you end up paying 10 times more. The cable companies will get us one way or the other."--Andrea
"While I wouldn't mind paying only for the channels I watch, I see no need for a family tier. There are already a dozen ways to limit which TV stations and which programs a child can watch. People can use their remote to limit access and set passwords for certain channels. Of course, I'm also a big fan of just saying 'no' and explaining why it isn't allowed, or watching TV with your kids so you can discuss what they're watching.'--Christina.
DirecTV tried doing a family tier five years ago, and it went over like a lead balloon. That tier included eight channels--Odyssey (from Hallmark), PBS Kids, Biography Channel, Discovery Kids, DIY, DDIY, Boomerang, Oxygen and Soapnet--for $5.
"We didn't do very well with it, and two years later, it was folded into another Total Choice package," said Robert Mercer, spokesman for DirecTV.
The indecency debate will continue with a Senate Commerce Committee hearing set for Jan. 19.
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