- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

The “cable choice” initiative continues to gather momentum. Public policy organizations, political leaders and even telecommunications companies increasingly endorse the very simple concept that consumers should take and pay for only what they want on cable television rather than continue subsidizing programming they find offensive or just plain lousy.

As to be expected, the cable industry is fighting back, with everything it’s got. The problem is that it has very little, and is reduced to argumentation that flirts with the bizarre.

First the industry claimed technology limitations prevented cable choice. This was proven false with the arrival of powerful new digital set-top boxes. Then they argued cable choice actually threatened the public interest because it would ruin programming diversity:

Networks cancelled would mean networks bankrupted. High School Economics 101 answered that: How would the public interest be threatened if the public wasn’t interested enough to subscribe to The Dune Buggy Network?

Someone recommended “family tiers” as a compromise. Rather than pure cable choice, the cable companies could bundle a special family-friendly grouping of networks and offer them to families alarmed by the filth put in front of their children. The cable industry balked, said the technology didn’t exist but miraculously discovered the technology a few weeks later when Congress threatened to pass cable choice legislation.

Perhaps the cable industry’s most cynical response was its announcement last fall it would spend a whopping $250 million to teach parents to deal more responsibly with Hollywood’s excesses by learning how to block offensive networks. That generosity was limited. Parents still would be required to subsidize those networks through their monthly cable bills.

The industry’s loudest argument was always that cable rates would rise with competition, citing a 2004 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) study that said so. It being discovered said report was funded by the cable giant Comcast, new FCC head Kevin Martin called for a new, independent review. The results have just been released. Cable rates could go down as much as 13 percent with cable choice.

Besides, since when did the cable industry ever care about high cable rates for consumers? While the Consumer Price Index increased in the five-year period from 1999 to 2003 at an annual rate of 2.4 percent (or an aggregate rise of 12.6 percent), basic cable rates rose at an annual 71/2 percent (or 431/2 percent in the aggregate).

The cable industry is officially out of gas. Or is it?

The industry now has a new line of attack. And I think we should hear it out, don’t you? The Oxygen network is one that has complained cable choice will put it out of business, a proposition certain to send shudders down the spines of its dozens of fans. Now Oxygen Media Chairman Geraldine Laybourne has another argument: “TV viewers don’t know what they want to watch until it’s there for them as an option.”

The silly, ignorant consumer. Just what will he, or she, be missing with cable choice? Ms. Laybourne tells us ( I’m not making this up): “Who would have known to subscribe to Bravo to watch ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ prior to it airing?”

Ms. Laybourne is using an awfully odd show as an example, the one program likely to cause more viewers to opt out of Bravo than any other, unless the consumer is attracted to this show’s brand of ribald references, like wondering whether home stains were caused by male bodily fluids.

But Ms. Laybourne didn’t need to stop at “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Thanks to her industry’s commitment to diversity, and options, 18 million cable households — check your dial, this could mean you — also now subsidize Viacom’s “gay” channel Logo, another option they would never otherwise have the forced opportunity to enjoy with cable choice.

The weekend before Valentine’s Day, Logo premiered a new documentary, “Beautiful Daughters,” about the first all-transgendered production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

The FCC has given parents concrete evidence that giving cable choice to consumers is feasible and affordable, despite all the cable industry’s millions in lobbying and buckets of excuses. Sen. John McCain, who claims to have the support of 40 national organizations, is offering legislation to mandate it.

It’s time for the cable moguls to offer some version of unbundled programming. No more excuses. No more dodges. And please, no more arguments like Ms. Laybourne’s.

L. Brent Bozell III, a nationally syndicated columnist, is founder and president of the Parents Television Council.

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