Cable controversy misses point

Man, I would not want to be a cable-TV exec these days.

Well, I mean, aside from the six-figure salary, massive national influence, and — oh yeah — free cable. Those things would be nice.

But in terms of the actual business end of things, being a cable operator isn’t the plum gig it used to be. Not only are you facing stiff competition with satellite TV, but now the FCC is reversing its position on a la carte programming.

A la carte programming, as you may know, has been trumpeted by consumer groups for years. It’s a very common-sense idea, when you get right down to it. Every time there is a decency scandal involving cable TV, industry lobbyists are quick to point out that parents can always have certain channels blocked if they find their programs to be offensive. But parental-advocacy groups tend to fire back with this — why should I have to pay for channels I don’t want?

Under Michael Powell’s reign as chairman in 2004, the FCC came to the conclusion that this would ultimately hurt subscribers in the long run, because changing the system would require a costly equipment and a system redesign that would drive subscription costs skyward.

But now, FCC chairman Kevin Martin is ready to turn the tide. And if I was a cable operator, I’d be getting a little nervous. Especially since my main competitor (satellite TV) is claiming it can make this whole a la carte thing work.

But the people who are most nervous are the smaller, niche-based cable stations, many of which are religious in nature. Which, according to the LA Times, can make for strange bedfellows. In this case, it’s TBN and other religious broadcasters opposing the proposed a la carte system.

It’s ironic, really, that TBN is finally ending up on the other end of a censorship debate. They’re guessing that the general populace wouldn’t, on its own, pay for religion programming — and they don’t want to be shut out of the marketplace. A good source (read: my gut) believes it’s probably the result of a deeply-honed defense mechanism designed to maintain viewership at any cost, even when the thing that is threatening viewership has a perceived benefit to citizens of organized religion. It’s almost like they’re saying, hey, stop doing things to help people spiritually — that’s what we’re for.

Of course, the key phrase is “perceived benefit,” because while a la carte programming is a boon for cost-conscious viewers like myself, it’s not exactly going to lead the masses into a spiritual revival. After all, trying to blame media channels for the poor morals that children internalize is a little bit like trying to blame the local sanitation department for the fact that your kids are eating dirt out of the gutter. If a child develops a habit eating dirt, then — yes, absolutely — that’s a problem. But the bigger issues are these: How did dirt end up on their plate? How is their sense of discernment so warped that they can’t tell the difference between a meal and a molehill?

Those are the types of questions parents need to be asking. You can’t get too angry at the industry for giving people what they want. What people need is to change what they want. And that’s the point that most people miss in this debate. For parents concerned about their children’s media habits, changing the TV programming options is just one step in the right direction.

There are many other steps that can be made, and they don’t take million-dollar lobbyists and carefully-worded press-releases. They take, love, discipline, and initiative.

Too bad those aren’t available on an a la carte basis.

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