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Sen. McCain's 'a la carte' cable could kill TV diversity [Blowback]

June 05, 2013|By David Honig

"To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine" was the motto for the nation’s first subscription library established in 1731. 

More than 250 years later, libraries of all kinds still provide benefits for the common good. Similarly, television audiences across America can access fantastic cable and satellite TV subscription libraries -- offering something for everyone -- available at just about the price of a daily cup of coffee. Viewers can "surf" hundreds of channels from the comfort of their homes, much like visitors to traditional brick-and-mortar libraries can browse shelves to explore and discover ideas and cultures to which they've never been exposed.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who detailed his views on cable TV pricing in a May 22 Times Op-Ed article, would transform subscription-based television viewing from browsable libraries to "have it your way" drive-thrus offering homogenized, less-is-more programming options. Not only that, but the popular mythology McCain repeats that this would result in reduced costs for TV viewers is not true.

For almost a decade, McCain has attempted to get Congress to pass laws that would require cable and satellite distributors to sell programming on a per-channel -- or a la carte -- basis.  His most recent legislative proposal is the Television Consumer Freedom Act (TCFA).  McCain's consumer-first rationale  contradicts studies from many industry analysts who conclude that a la carte rules would send channels featuring diverse voices to the digital graveyard and cost consumers more money per month for far fewer viewing options.

Cable and satellite operators provide a powerful distribution platform to channels that would otherwise receive little attention. The business model for pay television is based on programmers’ and distributors’ ability to provide subscribers with a wide range of programming options, taking advantage of the economies of scale that result from distributing a channel to more than 100 million households rather than, for example, the 6 million customers who may be in a particular ethnic or socio-economic group. Broad distribution allows niche networks an opportunity to be discovered and find an audience slowly and organically, which enables them to attract advertising dollars and recoup the costs of producing high-quality programming for a national audience.

This model has contributed to the growth of culturally diverse channels, such as TV One, Nat Geo Mundo, Discovery en Español, the Africa Channel and others. It has empowered the cable and satellite industry to emerge as a provider of highly diverse programing with a wide range of voices. However, suppose that TV One or Nat Geo Mundo were distributed only on an a la carte basis, to subscribers who knew they wanted those channels. They would face an uncertain fate if they were forced from the current distribution model -- which places them in tens of millions of households for pennies per viewer -- to one that would expose them only to consumers who were willing to pay considerably more for the channels. How many subscribers would add such programming after they had already made their initial selections?

At the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, we believe that the same principles that guided the creation of the nation’s first subscription library should guide those who influence the availability of subscription-based television video "libraries." If traditional libraries operated a la carte, they’d only need drive-up windows. Readers could order books they’d already heard about, far fewer books would be written and published, and most books would be mass-appeal titles. Our nation would be much poorer intellectually and culturally.

That’s why a la carte isn't just a "technical" television issue. It can determine whether minority voices and diverse information will have an opportunity to reach the cultural and intellectual heart of our nation.

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David Honig is the president of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.

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