Conservatives are right that parents need to take responsibility for what their children watch on television. They are wrong, however, when they cross the line into calling for government regulations to do this for them. Specifically, conservatives should avoid calling for Washington bureaucrats to completely restructure a well-functioning, private industry by forcing cable and satellite providers to offer pay-per-channel, or “a la carte” programming. Under a la carte, cable and satellite companies would be forced to offer each channel separately, and charge consumers for the channels they order.
Asking parents to supervise what their children watch is a conservative idea. Threats from Washington bureaucrats to regulate television are not. Proponents of a la carte sometimes represent themselves as advocates of free markets, but government-mandated, “managed competition” is the stuff of Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan and the botched telephone unbundling fights of the 1990s, not of truly competitive free markets.
Such regulations are based on a government-knows-best mentality that is all too common on the left, but that conservatives have traditionally rejected. Such mandates would abrogate contracts between video service providers and programmers, imposing a complicated and expensive regulatory burden on these providers and decreasing consumer choice.
The current bundling system is the result of freely negotiated contracts and market rationality. In the bundling system, popular channels like TNT effectively help market less-watched channels like Court TV and Animal Planet. These smaller niche channels may not be able to stand on their own. The recently formed Alliance for Diversity in Programming, which includes many minority programming companies, correctly realizes that a la carte mandates will destroy programming diversity. The Discovery Channel, one of the best sources of family-friendly programming, has also come out in public opposition to a la carte mandates.
And in a letter to the FCC with fellow religious broadcasters, the late Jerry Falwell wrote: “Though well-intentioned, the fact is that a la carte would threaten the very existence of religious broadcasting and the vital ministry conducted over the television airwaves.” Is threatening religious broadcasting in any way a “conservative” idea? As it stands now, the complexity of tailoring an individual channel lineup to millions of cable and satellite subscribers would lead to increased costs. Consumers would suffer from less investment in new infrastructure, less innovation, and, most immediately, higher prices. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that under a la carte, many customers would have higher bills, even with many fewer channels than they have now. GAO also found that many smaller networks would go out of business, giving consumers fewer choices.
Are higher prices and fewer choices “conservative” ideas? A la carte supporters have shifted their focus recently. They now couch their support for government intrusion in the market as necessary to “save the children” from inappropriate violent or sexual content. Some parents, who have voluntarily bought cable or satellite packages, are now saying that they want the government to relieve them of the responsibility to control what their children are watching.
For example, the Parents Television Council (PTC), a media activist group that seeks greater FCC content regulation, recently released a poll “proving” that the V-Chip, parental-control technologies and recent parental-educational efforts on the part of the cable industry have all failed. But since that poll only consisted of a few questions added to a larger, separate poll that was not limited to families with children, it would not seem to indicate anything close to the claim that parents are unable to control what their children watch. A more direct approach reveals that, as a 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation study indicates, most parents regulate what their children watch through media consumption rules rather than using technical controls. Those include, for example, restricting the amount of TV a child is allowed to watch in a day.
Conservatives should know better than to call for the government to step in and regulate the market structure of a highly competitive, innovative industry. Parents who have voluntarily purchased cable and satellite programming should take responsibility for managing what portion of that programming their children watch, without calling for the government to impose needless regulations.
Tim Phillips is president of Americans for Prosperity.
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