Monday, April 30, 2007

FCC vs. Cable

Despite no definitive causal link between media violence and violence among children, an admitted failure of past regulations to protect children from “indecent” programming, and no viable definition of what merits ‘excessive’ violence, the Federal Communications Commission released a long-awaited report calling for the regulation of television violence. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, (D-WV), is expected to put forth legislation granting the FCC, among other powers, the ability to alter the existing contracts between cable networks and providers to break-up current channel packages so customers may pick channels more suitable for children. This “a la carte” imposition would force the cable and satellite providers to make individual channels available to each home, if the customer so chooses, without having to pay for the other channels which usually come with ‘basic’ cable.
Granted, if I were a parent, I would not want my children to watch TV shows with considerable violence and gore like the ‘Sopranos’ or ‘CSI’, in spite of my thorough enjoyment of both of them. I would imagine that there are many parents throughout America who feel the same way and are taking the necessary measures to limit their children’s exposure to them – you know, by parenting. Yet, legislators like Sen. Rockefeller and presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have thrown their considerable political weight behind measures such as this to parent America’s children through regulation.
Politicians and groups who support the “a la carte” regulation should be – according to the theory supporting the FCC report – trying to keep these two shows from the virgin eyes of America’s youth. Yet neither show will probably be affected on its primary network by the “a la carte” provision.
The reasons for these exceptions are two-fold: first, the ‘Sopranos’ is shown on HBO, a premium channel already excluded from ‘basic’ programming packages; second, CBS’ ‘CSI’ – along with other shows with gore, violence, and even torture (such as Fox’s ‘24’) – is broadcast on a local affiliate network which must be carried by cable and satellite providers by FEDERAL LAW. The FCC report shows no indication that the “must carry” provision is likely to be lifted for this new and arbitrary rule. So, what we have here is a regulation that protects standard local and premium channels at the advertising expense of smaller, and often more niche oriented, basic cable channels.
Thank heavens America’s children will be safe from Lifetime!
In all seriousness, smaller networks are often bundled with larger, more successful flagship networks in order to develop programming for smaller specific demographics (and therefore target markets for certain advertisers) which may be squeezed out by this artificial market manipulation. In response to this, advocacy groups such as the NAACP, have come out against forced “a la carte” measures out of fear black-oriented channels will be marginalized.
While no one should be asking for government protection of these networks, it seems fair for them to request not to be squeezed out by capricious regulation either.
This is not the first time “a la carte” programming has come before Congress. The FCC has issued two separate and contradictory reports on the feasibility of breaking-up the basic cable packages. The first report, released in November 2004, found that the imposition of “a la carte” pricing would raise the price of service for the consumers while lowering program diversity. The second report released early last year, (requested by members of Congress to essentially ‘try again’), found that there should be no significant market disruption by mandating “a la carte” pricing and that consumers would not face higher cable rates.
To make sense of the conflicting information, the Congressional Research Service released a report comparing and contrasting the two FCC “a la carte” reports. The CRS report found flaws in the data collection and assumptions in both of the FCC reports, but concludes that the higher transactional costs for mandated “a la carte” services could increase consumer prices, especially among the more than half of current cable subscribers who still receive analog cable services.
Interestingly, the CRS report also shows that the current programming structure will likely give way to competitive pressures from Internet and phone companies that will make video “on-demand” services more common as the shift to fully digital services approaches - thereby increasing selectivity among consumers. This would be a more natural progression of the market to accommodate the particular desires of consumers without additional cumbersome, arbitrary, federal regulation and unnecessary added costs.
While it is impossible to tell at this point what the legislation will say and thus what its effects will be, it is certain that the information the bill will be based on is inconclusive, incomplete, and undeniably arbitrary. In all likelihood, these measures will cause more problems than its backers can hope to solve.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wrote this letter to the Birmingham News in July after Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt signed on to the legislation. Unfortunately, they cut the last paragraph:

The Family and Consumer Choice Act of 2007 touted by Rep. Robert Aderholt (“Bill gives parents more control over TV,” July 22) will give cable providers three so-called choices: “limit ‘indecent’ programming during daylight hours…offer a family tier of programming,” or “choose to offer an opt-out a la carte cable package to consumers.”
Anyone who believes in the values of a free society and understands how markets work should be worried and offended by such a statement. In using words such as “necessary” and “common-sense” to describe this legislation, Rep. Aderholt is attempting to mask what it truly is: force. Rep. Aderholt does not agree with some of the programming that is offered by cable providers and he has decided to use his power as a legislator to force these companies to do as he pleases.
However, markets should be able to quickly tell us whether this legislation is necessary and the obvious answer is no. If parents really truly desired ways to limit the “indecent” content their children are exposed to they would demand it from the cable providers. And given that cable providers are for-profit companies, and given the fact that companies make money when they do what their customers want, they would most likely offer family-friendly options. And in reality the market is already at work. Many digital cable providers already offer parents the ability to monitor or control the content their children have access to.
Perhaps one day we will have a “common-sense” lawmaker who will propose that we limit indecent legislating during daylight hours. As for me, I am waiting for the opt-out package from the overarching realm of government.

Billy Hankins
Auburn, AL

o.k., I'm done reading 6 month old blog posts. Now I'm going to finish evaluating line integrals in space and then dress up like a Blues Brother and jam out to a hippie band all night. Peace