Choice in cable channels? Debate heats up.

Minorities and Christians raise concerns that individual channel pricing will end their programs.

With everyone from consumer groups and minority organizations watching closely, Congress is poised to decide whether to enter a roiling debate over cable and satellite bills.

At issue is whether paying for TV channels should be like shopping at the supermarket, where customers choose the products they purchase, or like buying a newspaper, which comes packaged with the same sports, business, and comics sections regardless of whether readers want them all.

It's hardly a minor debate in a country where more than 90 million people subscribe to cable and satellite TV, with many forced to pay for dozens of channels regardless of how many they watch.

Customers do have the ability to program their cable boxes to block out specific channels such as "F/X, which broadcasts the raunchy plastic surgery soap opera "Nip/Tuck." But some say blocking isn't enough, and they're calling for greater channel control.

"I do believe that something needs to be done," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin told a Senate committee in November, touting the feasibility of so-called "a la carte" systems - offering a full thumbs-up/thumbs-down choice of individual channels - and "family-friendly" channel packages. If cable operators do nothing, he threatened, "basic indecency and profanity restrictions may be a viable alternative."

But Democratic politicians and Christian broadcasters are crying foul. They are concerned that a wide expansion of channel choice could raise cable and satellite prices and spell the end of small networks targeted toward niche audiences.

Last month, behemoth cable companies Time Warner and Comcast responded to pressure by offering an alternative to a la carte: "family-friendly tiers," packages of channels without explicit content, which customers can buy instead of the entire cable channel lineup.

The packages cost between $31 and $35 a month and include access to local channels as well as a special tier of "G-rated" entertainment, news, and public affairs channels such as the Disney Channel and CNN Headline News. Together, Comcast and Time Warner have about 32 million subscribers.

The question now facing Congress: Is this enough?

It is indeed, argue cable operators, who say full channel choice will result in extra costs for customers, who already pay an average of $40 each month for "extended basic cable" which usually includes between 70 and 80 channels.

"Under an a la carte plan, that same $40 would probably result in a handful of channels, fewer than 10," says Brian Dietz, spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, an industry trade group in Washington. The existing "bundle" plans provide "the best value and widest variety of programming for the customer," he says.

Consumer groups say the cable industry's arguments are "a little suspicious ... They're responsible for skyrocketing cable prices in the first place," says Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union. She says cable rates have jumped 64 percent over the past decade.

The FCC has weighed in on the debate, with Chairman Martin debunking the conclusions of a 2004 FCC study, warning that channel choice would bring higher cable fees. According to Mr. Martin, research suggests that a la carte might actually lower cable fees by 2 percent.

Minority and religious cable networks are working to stop a la carte pricing.

In a newspaper column, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose ministries run a cable/satellite channel, wrote that it "threatens to purge Christian broadcasts from the vast majority of US households.... In our zeal to protect our children from 'Sex and the City,' we should not adopt policies that would prevent millions from hearing the gospel."

Meanwhile, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) of California, warned in a newspaper column last month that "the cable industry's most exciting new talent - scores of programs for Latinos, African-Americans, women and others - would be the first casualties" of an a la carte system because they wouldn't be able to reach enough viewers to survive.

Congressional hearings scheduled for later this month should indicate whether family-friendly tiers will satisfy lawmakers in Washington or will be a precursor to further pressure on the cable industry to require full a la carte systems.

But cable industry analyst Ted Henderson of Stifel Nicolaus associates questions whether many customers will sign up for "squeaky clean" programming.

"The reality is that people have migrated towards some of the edgier content as it's continued to push the envelope," he says. "I think family tiers will be met with minimal acceptance."

Cable technology then becomes useful to people who find certain programming offensive, Mr. Henderson says. "It will continue to be the case that if you don't like it, you can block it out."

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