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John McCain: Unbundle my cable TV!

June 03, 2013|By Patt Morrison
  • A man browses the TV set aisle in a Sony store in Tokyo. Sen. John McCain wants Americans to be able to unbundle their cable TV choices.
A man browses the TV set aisle in a Sony store in Tokyo. Sen. John McCain wants… (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP/Getty…)

I don’t think I would much enjoy watching TV with John McCain. He strikes me as the kind of guy who’d have an itchy channel-changing trigger finger, and who would get mad when what he really wanted to watch was behind another paywall on the cable TV he’d already paid for, and there were myriad channels of dreck that he didn't want to see at all.

The Arizona Republican senator is the new champion for unbundling and offering a la carte cable TV. Writing in The Times about his legislation, the Television Consumer Freedom Act, he argues that the nation needs to unbundle TV cable packages to spare consumers having to pay for what they don’t watch. And he says ESPN is the “most egregious” of the lot.

Now, “Business Insider” argues that this wouldn’t save consumers money at all, and moreover, I believe there’s always some “Morton’s Fork” scheme that means companies manage to outwit consumers and come out on top every time, no matter how assiduous the attempt to rein in their ways.

(Now, I’ve pretty much given up on cable since Time-Warner turned my Turner Classic Movies channel into a golf channel, and the channel once named Arts & Entertainment now carries shows such as “Storage Wars.” It changed its name to A&E in 1995 so it could phase out thoughtful, smart programming and pander to audiences panting for “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and more hot rod and tattoo TV.)

I took special note of McCain’s point because in researching a column about L.A.’s mayors in Hollywood, I wound up looking through old TV schedules in The Times for former Mayor Sam Yorty’s show.

I found it -- and a lot more. One day’s programming from Nov. 1, 1986, had more that I wanted to watch than a week’s worth of current cable. Nov. 1 was a Saturday, and the morning began at 5 with the 1940 movie “The Human Monster” on Channel 7. The cable channels inclined toward movies -- before noon, I could have seen “The Candidate,” “A Christmas Story,” “Prisoner of War” with Ronald Reagan, “Major Barbara,” “Jaws,” opposite “1918,” “Night of the Comet” and “Cocoon.”

On broadcast, I could have watched “Tarzan Finds a Mate,” “Duel” (that superb early Steven Spielberg thriller), “Prince of Players” with Richard Burton and the Hitchcock gripper “The Man who Knew Too Much. And all that even before prime time.

A&E carried real arts, real entertainment: “The Emperor Jones,” “Arrowsmith,” a program about the Hopis, and another about Italians.

Unbundling cable is a notion that’s played popularly but not politically, and I don’t expect McCain’s legislation to make it very far, with the forces of ESPN and religious broadcasters likely to line up against it. Religious broadcasters have historically worried that unbundling cable will find them left behind, like the scrawny, awkward kid who’s always picked last for “sides” in a volleyball game.

And unbundling is no guarantee that good programming will return; come to think of it, the opportunities for Kardashian spinoffs would probably only multiply, just like the K family itself.

Me, I’d be happy with cable that offered me a version of the V-Chip -- not to weed out non-G-rated shows but to shield me from the plague of “reality” programming. Even if I wind up with little more than C-SPAN and static, it’d be an improvement.

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