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Conservative groups push à la carte cable menus

At least 2 companies break rank, express support for options

WASHINGTON -- Conservative groups love the idea of letting television viewers pay for only the channels they want on cable and are happy it's back on the table in Washington, where lawmakers and regulators are fed up with raunchy television.

While the cable industry generally loathes the notion of an à la carte pricing system, at least one cable company and a potentially big cable competitor have embraced it.

À la carte would allow cable subscribers to pick and pay for individual channels rather than being forced to buy packages. A parent, for example, could pick Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network -- and not have to take MTV or other channels they may find objectionable as part of a bundled package.

The idea attracted attention this week on Capitol Hill when the Federal Communications Commission chairman, Kevin Martin, told industry leaders they need to give parents more tools to help navigate the hundreds of channels on cable and satellite television.

''Something needs to be done," Martin said at an all-day forum on broadcast indecency.

One option he suggested would be an à la carte choice system -- something the cable industry, for the most part, has staunchly opposed. But Martin found support for the idea from Cablevision Systems Corp., which operates in the New York City area and has supported à la carte selections before.

''We do not believe in the long term that selling programming à la carte will be detrimental to either programmers or cable operators," Charles Dolan, Cablevision Chairman, said Thursday.

Other providers say selling channels individually would force some channels that can't attract enough advertising out of business.

Other channels might charge more to cable systems to carry them, leading to higher prices for consumers, the providers say.

Martin said his agency is finishing a report showing that a choice-pricing system might not be more expensive and would be in the best interest of consumers.

The report would contradict a study the agency released last year, before Martin became chairman, that said cable subscribers could face a rate increase of as much as 30 percent under an à la carte system. Martin said the earlier study relied on faulty assumptions and incorrect analysis.

Watchdog groups like the Parents Television Council see à la carte as the ultimate solution to objectionable cable programming.

''Everyone's a winner," said PTC's president, L. Brent Bozell. ''People who don't want to take and pay for raunchy programming don't have to, and people who want it can take it."

Cable operators counter that parents can use blocking controls to shield children from certain channels and programs.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have bemoaned the amount of sex, violence, and racy programming that children are exposed to on television. But it's not clear whether there's much of an appetite to force à la carte on the cable industry.

Even so, Ted Stevens, Senate Commerce Committee chairman and Republican of Alaska, made clear at Tuesday's indecency summit that if the cable industry doesn't take action to help concerned parents, Congress will.

Analysts say other forces, such as new competition from phone companies, may cause the industry to reconsider cable choice.

AT&T, which plans to start selling video services later this month, said it supports an à la carte option for consumers.

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