The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Losing My Religious Programming?

It’s something I’ve always wondered about, and it occurred to me again last night. Tired of browsing through all the channels on satellite TV, just to find the ones we usually watch, I finally created a “favorites” list. That means we don’t have to browse through all of the channels we never watch anyway — mostly sports channels and religious programming — but as I went through the process of not choosing channels like God TV and Trinity Broadcasting I realized that even though I’m not watching them I’m still paying for them.

Why’s that? I mean, don’t I already support religious programs with my tax dollars, thanks to Bush’s faith-based initiative? Do I have to subscribe to their television channels too? Why can’t I choose the channels I subscribe to, or don’t? IfI could, I certainly wouldn’t subscribe to World Harvest Television or the Church Channel. Turns out, that choice for cable/satellite viewers is being debated in Congress.

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The latest effort, and the newest reasoning for requiring cable companies to offer channel choice, or a la carte cable, has to do with yet another issue: television violence.

The Federal Communications Commission released a report in late April suggesting to Congress that an a la carte system would allow parents to shield their children from violent shows by not subscribing to the channels that carry them.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who has been unshakable in his support of channel choice, says it can’t happen without federal legislation. And thus far, the issue has gotten little traction on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who is expected to unveil a bill addressing television violence any day now, has opposed the creation of an a la carte system.

This, in the same week when cable choice lost a powerful enemy.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, who was found dead at age 73 Tuesday afternoon in his Lynchburg, Va., office, supported the cable industry in the battle to combat regulations forcing the a la carte sale of video programming.

In late 2004, Falwell told the Federal Communications Commission that a la carte mandates would destroy the ability of his program, the Old Time Gospel Hour, to reach a mass audience.

“Though well-intentioned, the fact is that a la carte would threaten the very existence of religious broadcasting and the vital ministry conducted over the television airwaves,” Falwell said in a November 2004 letter to the FCC joined by nine other ministers, including the Rev. Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network and Pastor John Hagee of John Hagee Ministries.

…Falwell and his religious allies agreed with cable that a la carte mandates would hurt their ability to spread their message as widely as possible.

In a world in which people pre-select either in or out of religious broadcasts, that mission would be greatly compromised. Either they would be preaching to the choir or not at all. Any broadcast seeking to reach out will fail under a la carte,” the ministers’ statement said.

My immediate response is something like, “Yeah? And I should have a problem with that because…?”

Well, there may be a “because” if I buy the economics argument.

But a close look at the idea of à la carte pricing shows that it would be a disaster for consumers. Most consumers would pay more for less, as the sweeping rules would decimate small and niche cable channels while raising prices.

Nearly every study on the matter has shown that the buffet approach gives consumers a far better shake than the à la carte approach. (Go to www.diversityTV.org.)

Here’s why.

Cable’s expanded basic tier of programming — the common platform, or bundle, of channels to which most cable customers subscribe — is built on the simple economic principle of “economies of scale.” When a small or emerging network — say Galavision or Oxygen for example — becomes part of the common platform there are vastly reduced costs, and thus savings that are ultimately passed on to consumers.

For starters, once on the platform, a new network is immediately exposed to millions of viewers who will stumble across it as they surf for the channels they regularly watch. Indeed, many networks such as ESPN and the Discovery Channel are taken for granted today. But these and hundreds of other cable channels say that new programming will never get off the ground in an à la carte world.

Second, small-and-medium-size programmers get premium advertising dollars due to their placement on the expanded tier, because advertisers know their “potential” audience — of both surfers and new converts — is much larger than if a new network had to attract new viewers on its own.

The common platform, then, is a new channel’s introduction to the television viewing world, and the key economic system for containing its costs. And these benefits translate to consumers who have an ever-increasing thirst for more products and who want to control prices.

Hmmmmm. That may be, but the above was written by Reb. Hilda Solis (D), a member of Congress with ties to the cable industry.

Solis was identified at the end of her piece as a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The Monterey Park (Los Angeles County) representative sits on the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, which has jurisdiction over the cable and satellite industries.

What Solis failed to mention, however, is that her No. 1 financial contributor in the 2006 election was cable giant Comcast, which donated $12,500 to Solis’ re-election campaign, according to public records.

Another prominent contributor was the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which donated $10,000.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, a political watchdog group, Solis has received a total of $142,788 from telecom and media companies since first being elected to the House in 2000.

Presented with this information, Solis told me that contributions from business interests don’t influence her policy positions.

“Hilda Solis is not that kind of person,” she said.

And while she acknowledged that her view of a la carte mirrors that of the cable industry, Solis said “I don’t agree with the industry on everything.”

Be that as it may, consumer advocates say that receiving donations from cable and media companies should be disclosed if a lawmaker is purporting to represent TV viewers’ best interests. Such info may be available in public records, but how many people have the desire or wherewithal to chase it down?

I don’t know whether the “buffet” system is better than the “a la carte” option, and whether helping to keep shows like Falwell’s and Hagee’s on the air is the price I pay for being able to get the Logo network. But I may not be the only customer wondering why I’m paying for channels I don’t watch.

In fact, an Associated Press survey last year found that 78 percent of people favor paying for only the channels they want to watch, as opposed to receiving bundles of channels selected by cable and satellite companies.

Moreover, surveys show that even though most cable and satellite subscribers receive well over 100 channels with the bundles, they watch no more than 17 on a regular basis.

The FCC says a la carte programming could lower viewers’ average bills by as much as 13 percent.

Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst at Consumers Union, said it’s a red herring to claim that diversity of programming would be harmed by a la carte pricing.

“Once distributors start responding to what people actually want to watch, they will have an incentive to provide really diverse programming,” she said.

In other words, you allow the marketplace to speak for itself. If there’s a market for the Golf Channel, say, it will find viewers. The same goes for religious channels or foreign-language channels.

Between bought-and-paid-for members of Congress and a Bush-appointed FCC chair, I’m not sure who to believe. But I am sure of two things: what channels I don’t want to watch, and that the satellite bill is due again soon.

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