- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

A la carte bargain

Cable TV subscribers traditionally moan about high cable bills, particularly since they may not watch half the channels foisted upon them.

Now, a new Federal Communications Commission study could give new ammunition to consumer groups fighting for the right to order cable channels a la carte — or only the ones they wish to see.

The study reveals that most cable TV subscribers would save money if allowed to pay for only the channels they requested, the Associated Press reports. The findings reverse an earlier study indicating that wasn’t the case.

While consumers have long salivated over the idea of an a la carte setup, cable companies fear the plan would diminish their wide distribution.

The study also gives added help to lawmakers and regulators who see a la carte as a way to clean up raunchy television by giving parents more control over the channels their children watch.

“I am pleased that the commission has concluded that a la carte offerings could reduce consumers’ cable bills by as much as 13 percent,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, told AP. The senator plans to introduce legislation this week to create and promote use of the la carte system.

The industry’s main trade group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, was quick to point out the downside.

“Over the last 25 years, the American free enterprise system created the most diverse video programming on earth with the best value for the customer,” said Kyle McSlarrow, the group’s president. “It is disappointing that the updated report relies on assumptions that are not in line with the reality of the marketplace.”

Many industry analysts also have been skeptical that an a la carte system would fly, citing in part First Amendment concerns. If customers cherry-pick the channels they want, diversity voices could be lost if smaller niche networks catering to minorities are forced out of business, according to the industry.

Currently, Congress requires cable companies to offer a basic service package that includes local broadcast stations. The companies also offer expanded basic packages that typically include bundles of cable networks such as ESPN and CNN. For HBO, Showtime and other premium services, consumer pay an additional fee.

The latest report also said in most cases subscribers would save 3 percent to 13 percent on their bills under a la carte. It noted that earlier assumptions that a la carte would lead consumers to watch two hours less of TV and thus decrease revenue for cable TV companies and increase costs lacked factual support.

Consumer groups cheered the latest findings.

“We think this is really going to open up a whole new debate on the benefits of letting consumers pick their own channels on cable television,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior director for public policy and advocacy at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

Handler’s reward

Comic Chelsea Handler, she of the brazen “Tonight Show” appearances and “Girls Behaving Badly” work, has earned a new gig on E! Entertainment Television.

The channel has ordered eight episodes of “The Chelsea Handler Show,” a prime-time series starring the saucy comedian, the Reuters news agency reports.

Miss Handler will appear in taped spoofs, film shorts and field remote pieces, all framed by stand-up segments of her performing before a studio audience. The show is expected to air in April.

Miss Handler’s comedy blends honest humor, ironic riffs and self-deprecation, satirizing everything from reality TV and one-night stands to her own futile attempts to interview celebrities. The comic, who next appears in the feature “National Lampoon’s Cattle Call,” is working on a follow-up book to her successful memoir “My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands,” a humorous account of her sexual misadventures.

Sci Fi’s latest

The Sci Fi Channel, flush from its successful “Battlestar Galactica” series, has given the go-ahead to an new show to premiere this summer, the Reuters news agency reports.

“Eureka,” which had already received a pilot order for a two-hour movie last year, will get 11 more one-hour episodes. The action concerns a small town in the Pacific Northwest populated by scientists conducting top-secret research for the government.

The series features a number of familiar faces, including Colin Ferguson (“Coupling”), Salli Richardson-Whitfield (“Antwone Fisher”), Joe Morton (“Paycheck”), Debrah Farentino (“The Division”) and Matt Frewer (“Max Headroom”).

Mark Stern, the channel’s executive vice president for original programming, told Reuters the series will be set in the present and will involve “characters and story lines that are relatable and intriguing with an imaginative sci-fi twist.”

The series will be shot in Vancouver.

Compiled by Christian Toto from staff and wire reports.

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