McCain bill seeks 'a la carte' cable channel subscriptions

WASHINGTON Thu May 9, 2013 6:05pm EDT

Sen. John McCain (R-Az) talks to the press after a special closed meeting of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, also attended by senior figures of the U.S. army on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 4, 2004. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Sen. John McCain (R-Az) talks to the press after a special closed meeting of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, also attended by senior figures of the U.S. army on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 4, 2004.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator John McCain introduced a bill on Thursday that would uproot the current system of bundling cable channels and let customers pay for select channels on an "a la carte" basis, a move likely to face stiff industry opposition.

The influential Republican's bill, dubbed the Television Consumer Freedom Act, comes at a time when cable prices are rising and pressure is mounting for programmers to stop forcing consumers to pay for subscriptions to lower-rated cable networks in order to watch more popular channels.

The move drew criticism from a leading cable trade group, which has long opposed "a la carte" programming. The industry has fought with regulators for years to protect the right to bundle, arguing that it offers customers the best value.

McCain, a long-time critic, called it "unfair and wrong" that consumers must choose between paying for dozens of channels they might not watch, or not getting a cable subscription at all.

"For over 15 years, I have supported giving consumers the ability to buy cable channels individually ... to provide consumers more control over viewing options in their home and, as a result, their monthly cable bill," McCain said.

Prospects for the legislation are unclear, but the bill has re-focused a debate that has for years consumed broadcasters, programmers and distributors, caused headaches in Washington, and led to some high-profile court cases.

In one current case, Cablevision Systems Corp is accusing Viacom Inc of forcing cable providers and subscribers to buy channels they do not want. Viacom has asked the court to throw out the lawsuit.

Cablevision founder Charles Dolan and Charlie Ergen, the billionaire chairman of Dish Network Corp, have advocated for an "a la carte" model. But Ergen, asked about the bill on an earnings call on Thursday, sounded skeptical.

"There are six big or five big groups that probably have enough clout in Congress" to stop the legislation, Ergen said, adding, "we'll see."

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association fired back at McCain.

"A government-mandated a la carte system is a lose-lose proposition," the group said in a statement. "As countless studies have demonstrated, subscription bundles offer a wider array of viewing options, increased programming diversity and better value than per channel options."

In a nod to the high-profile debate over online TV service Aereo, McCain's bill would strip operation licenses from broadcasters that decide to take their programming off free airwaves to be offered to cable subscribers only.

Last month, News Corp's Fox TV network threatened to become a cable channel if courts do not shut down Aereo, which offers cut-rate TV subscriptions by capturing broadcast signals over thousands of antennas at one time.

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Ros Krasny and Jan Paschal)

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Comments (4)
Sensibility wrote:
This should be one idea that gets almost everyone’s support.

May 09, 2013 9:06pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
gacha wrote:
Wow, they cannot come to any consensus on the economy, on the debt, or immigration, but they all agree they want to spend their retirement watching the shows they like.

Let the nation fall into China, I want my TV shows when I want them. Senator John McCain, cable hero.

May 09, 2013 9:23pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
ChicagoFats wrote:
This is one area where I can agree with Sen. McCain. The cable operators’ arguments about “improved value” are specious. No one gets to decide what I WANT to watch. They may control what I GET to watch by pricing it out of my budget, but that’s a different story.

No way television is worth $140.00 per month. On any given day, for example, most of the ESPN channels – part of that “improved value” – are showing reruns of stuff we didn’t want to watch in the first place. In my opinion, 70% of cable programming is as bad as 90% of broadcast TV programming. Shark Week on Animal Planet, hello? Rerun how many times?

What the operators are perpetrating is a ripoff of television consumers. It’s why I don’t have cable or satellite television today. I was very interested when AT&T rang my doorbell to tell me that fiber optic UVerse service is now available to my house – until I got them to admit they use the same bundling scheme everybody else does. Buh bye. Call me when you get real.

May 09, 2013 12:19am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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