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A La Carte Cable TV?

Don't count on it

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Recent news reports could lead you to think "a la carte cable" -- in which you pay only for the cable channels you want -- is just around the corner. Don't be so sure. Mainstream media stories about a recent FCC study -- which declared that an a la carte system would save consumers money -- raised cable choice supporters' hopes. The truth, however, is that a la carte cable still has serious hurdles to clear -- all of them related to internal divisions in the Republican party -- before it can become law. Frankly, I wouldn't count on it.

Don't get me wrong -- I want a la carte cable. It burns my butt that I have to pay for Pat Robertson's "non-Christians must die" channel just so I can watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. Then again, many conservatives are irritated about having to support, say, MTV in order to bask in the wisdom of Fox News. Either way, the collective rears of many Americans are torched by cable companies' annoying practice of bundling dissimilar channels into all-or-nothing "packages." If that's so, then why is there any delay in getting a la carte cable off the ground? Largely, the hold-up is due to a struggle in which the competing interests and differing visions within the GOP are at war. At this point, it's very unclear which will prevail.

The mainstream press has been framing the a la carte cable fight as a simple one of the cable industry vs. an "unlikely coalition" of liberal and conservative activists fighting for the same goal. If only that were the case. It's true that liberal groups, especially Consumers Union, were the first to push for a la carte cable and have been doing so for years. But the cold fact is that liberal influence is pretty sparse at both the FCC and in Congress, where many members are in the back pocket of the telecommunications industry.

Two things happened to move the a la carte bandwagon along. First, social conservatives -- the other side of the Republicans' grand Corporations-and-Prudes coalition -- began complaining loudly and often that they were grossed out by the likes of South Park and Nip/Tuck, and wanted the government to help them protect their kids from the evils of TV. Second, Charlotte's Kevin Martin became Chairman of the FCC.

Martin has conservative credentials out the wazoo. A telecommunications lawyer, he drew attention in the Bush camp as part of the legal team that handled the 2000 Florida ballot aftermath for the GOP. His wife, Catherine, a Bush assistant on economic policy, is a former adviser to Dick Cheney. Conservative and religious groups pushed hard for Martin's elevation to the FCC chairmanship because of his history of strong support of their campaigns for "decency" on television. (Martin likes to point out that complaints to the FCC about indecency have reached over a million per year, but he fails to mention that nearly all those complaints come from an organized effort by one of the groups that support him, the rightwing Parents Television Council.)

In the meantime, Martin has repaid his far-right supporters by pressuring the cable industry to provide "family-friendly" channel packages. He's also come out in favor of enforcing a primetime "family hours" policy that would include basic cable as well as broadcast TV, and he's voiced support for a la carte cable. It's in the debate over those last two issues that the strains in the Republican coalition come more sharply into view.

Social conservatives want the cable industry "cleaned up," and if not cleaned up, they at least don't want to be exposed to shows they deem offensive. The cable industry, on the other hand, wants as little interference as possible and considers family-friendly cable packages the least burdensome of Martin's ideas. Now that they've given ground on that issue, you can count on the cable biggies to flex their substantial muscle in Congress (i.e., more than $23 million dollars in political contributions in the past five years) to fight any a la carte cable laws such as Sen. John McCain's proposed legislation to require channel choice.

So if you're a Republican member of Congress and part of the GOP's Money-and-Christ alliance, whom do you kowtow to? Big business, in this case the cable industry, which vehemently opposes a la carte cable? Or the pro-a la carte religious right, whose anguish over the state of the modern world has helped vault your party to power? Complicating the fight is conservatives' traditional aversion to regulating businesses, as well as the fact that smaller religious broadcasters oppose a la carte cable because they fear viewers with an actual choice would tune them out.

Kevin Martin is a savvy political operator -- you don't get to be FCC Chairman at age 38 otherwise -- but he and his religious right supporters may be about to hit the wall of Big Money. However the a la carte cable battle plays out, it's going to be very entertaining to see two insidious influences on US politics battling each other. Just don't expect for any liberal groups' efforts to have any impact. This is strictly a family feud.

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