To the untrained eye, last week's indecency roundup hosted by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) may have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the American government. Somehow a country whose tradition of comstockery goes all the way back to Anthony Comstock himself, which once proudly banned sailor-mouthed literary masterworks, whose bluenoses managed to drive Lenny Bruce onto a fatal toilet, has been reduced to this: two octogenarians who represent places that shouldn't even be U.S. states giving L. Brent Bozell III a public forum to get sweaty over all the "bestiality" and "necrophilia" available on broadcast television in prime time (naturally without specifying where the average viewer might be able to see this kind of action).
But in the aftermath of the indecency panel, the Senate's power to thwart and destroy has been reaffirmed. As "à la carte pricing" has emerged as the likeliest way for the cable industry to solve this non-problem and avoid an attempt at FCC control of non-broadcast communications, decency hawks and consumer advocates, and even an aspiring cable or company or two, have joined forces to declare this a swell idea. With that many interests in agreement, you can be fairly sure this idea stinks.
Stinks? you say. How can a new system, wherein the individual cable viewer, rather than a committee of faceless apparatchiks holed up in the bowels of some massive cable conglomerate, gets to choose his or her own package of TV channels possibly stink? Who the hell are you, Mr. I Love The Big Cable Oligarchy, to sneer at empowering consumers? This is the general attitude of a San Francisco Chronicle editorial today that revels in the notion of nervous cable guys:
[FCC Chairman Kevin] Martin's plan is a boon for bill-paying TV watchers. Who, after all, wants to pay for deep-outfield channels offering moose hunting and celebrity poker games? It's a safe bet that most people click to favorite channels and ignore the rest, so why not just pay for what is used?
Why not, indeed? Here's why: By any yardstick, the average contemporary cable offering affords a selection that is orders of magnitude richer and more varied than anything that's been available in the history of television. Of the two forces in favor of à la carte pricing, only one—the decency advocates—actually wants to shrink this selection. Consumer activists, on the other hand, are simply pursuing the great American tradition of seeking something for nothing. The à la carte plan will satisfy neither side. Decency types, having protected unwilling viewers from receiving risqué programming, will inevitably turn next to willing viewers, and seek to ensure that nobody can be exposed to risqué programming. But for consumer activists, the disappointment will be even more immediate: They'll find that there is no way the new pricing plan can reproduce even a tenth of what they're now getting.
I mean that literally. The various à la carte schemes that have been offered up so far don't survive even the most basic back-of-the-envelope calculations. But here's one anyway: My cable channels go all the way up to the 900s (where the dependable Music Choice channels reside, and where I, in apparent defiance of normal cable subscriber behavior, have spent many a bluegrass- and New Wave-soothed hour). Of course, most of those nearly 1,000 channels are blanks, Pay-Per-View offers, or subscribe-to-me dummies. Only when the à la carte discussion started to heat up did I laboriously click through each of my channels, to discover that, not counting music-only choices, $65 a month buys me 147 channels.
Now the à la carte argument is that most viewers watch only a fraction of the available offerings and that thus I'm overestimating the value of those 147 channels. I disagree with that argument, but that's just me. An FCC study that Martin has lately been touting to support his own recent shift in support of à la carte notes that most viewers only watch about 17 channels, and that a decent package can be cobbled together featuring just the basics (including all the networks, a couple of the news channels, and so on), and allowing subscribers to purchase their choice of additional channels at prices estimated between $3.90 and $4.73.
In other words, the FCC proposes to get us back to a package that will deliver exactly four channels more than I used to get on a rabbit-ears TV when Gerald Ford was president. Only now you have to pay for it. Of course, you can supplement that package with individually purchased channels. You may have a cable package more humble than my own expanded-basic deal, but if we take the lowest end of the FCC's per-channel estimate, it's still costing me more than $500 per month to reproduce what I'm now getting for $65. Whether I watch those channels frequently, rarely, or not at all, this can not be described as anything other than a drastic reduction in consumer choice.
Although the excitement over à la carte has been widespread, there are a few folks out there who seem to be approaching my conclusion. An A. T. Kearney study lays out some potential drawbacks of the new plan. Of course, since this plan is still in its early stages, it's possible that Comcast may decide to retain packages like mine while also offering à la carte packages. But I'm not trusting Comcast to act in my best interests, particularly when it has the foolproof excuse that the government is forcing its hand.
There is another class of losers in the à la carte revolution: those weird channels mocked by the Chronicle as "moose-hunting" and "celebrity poker" and by Conan O'Brien in a recurring sketch wherein he reviews obscure cable offerings like "The Lincoln Money Shot Channel," "The Sanford & Son Boxing Channel," and "The Kissinger Keep-Away Channel." But not all these channels that benefit from general must-carry deals are so easily dismissed, and again, a few people have begun to catch on to the danger. As an individual line item offered at four bucks a pop, I would never say yes to Mother Angelica's EWTN network, but I like having it there, and have even eked a profitable, enjoyable piece of freelance work out of one of its offerings. No wonder religious broadcasters have been among the surprising objectors to the Brent Bozell-approved plan to "unbundle indecency." Under the current setup they can boast of having millions of subscribers; forced into an à la carte menu, those millions would rapidly dwindle into the tens. (Religious programmers may have a hitherto unacknowledged decency problem of their own: By the standards of just about half the American population, EWTN's steady diet of pro-life, anti-gay content could surely be considered objectionable.)
My kids would suffer too. Forced into tightwad decisions about our TV diet, I would definitely lose most of the kid-friendly channels (of the Sprout/Noggin/Disney genre) in my current lineup. We currently get eight or nine of those, and I should really find out exactly how many—but at prices like these, why bother? And who's to say when I might have need of the booze- and caffeine-free fare on the BYUTV channel that dwells somewhere in the upper reaches of my dial? Or what of Logo? I'd never actively pay for Logo's all-gay content, but like an ostensibly straight man hanging around a remote rest area, I like to have it there as a constant possibility. The bottom line is: Why should I be punished because you like TV less than I do? Why should Mother Angelica?
Unlike Brent Bozell—a congenital liar who participates in the fiction that the v-chip and the vast array of parental controls already available on cable are terrible failures—I do not believe indecency on television is a problem. But I'll offer a solution anyway. AT&T and Verizon are both trying to get into the cable game, and they're both backing à la carte. So let them go ahead. In the absence of government strong-arming, let them play the role upstarts are supposed to play: competing by offering a new way of doing business. And if consumers decide they like what these new players have to offer, then bully for everybody. Meanwhile, let the FCC get back to policing its shrinking area of communications, and let Kevin Martin use the free time to get some sunshine and drink something that will put hair on his chest and whiskers on his disturbingly boyish chin.
Tim Cavanaugh, is Reason's Web editor.