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Groups urge greater freedom for cable viewers

June 30, 2005

Groups urge greater freedom for cable viewers
Consumers, conservative groups urge Congress to act on cable a la carte

WASHINGTON, DC – Consumer and conservative groups have joined together in urging Congress to give cable viewers greater choice about the programming they receive. With legislation concerning indecency on television stalled in Congress, the groups are asking for a renewed effort to let consumers choose the cable channels they receive.
In a letter to members of Congress, the consumer groups urged them to enact legislation allowing consumers to choose their cable stations a la carte. Such a choice would alleviate the need for congressional action on indecency by allowing individuals to regulate what they view themselves.
In addition, the groups argue that a la carte options would also lower the price consumers pay for cable service. Right now, cable companies charge outrageous prices for channel packages that include channels some viewers might find objectionable.
“A la carte legislation is a common sense way to address the two biggest pet peeves consumers have with cable companies: getting channels they don’t want and having to pay through the nose to get the ones they do,” said Gene Kimmelman, Director of Public Policy for Consumers Union. “By allowing consumers to choose the channels they want, you will let citizens rather than the government decide what programming is indecent and help lower the monthly cost for cable subscribers. Cable companies hate this idea, but it is a win-win situation for consumers.”
A copy of the consumers letter, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, Center for Digital Democracy, Free Press, Center for Creative Voices in Media and (potentially) Communications Workers of America–AFL-CIO as well as a copy of the letter from the Parents Television Council, the American Conservative Union, American Values and other conservative groups are attached. Downloads of the letters as well as more information on cable a la carte is available at www.HearUsNow.org.

June 30, 2005
Dear Senator/Representative:
It’s time to give people a meaningful tool to avoid receiving or underwriting the cost of programming they may find objectionable. That’s why we urge you to embrace cable channel choice as a market-driven answer to this vexing problem, a solution that also should help lower consumers’ cable bills and increase the amount of diverse and independent content on television.
Rather than having government in the precarious position of deciding what content is “decent” or appropriate, cable channel choice would give individuals and families the opportunity to decide which channels they want without paying for the channels they don’t want. If consumers had this control over what TV content could enter their homes, there would be no need for government regulation of TV content; consumers could regulate for themselves. It is time to stop forcing consumers to accept and pay for large “take-it-or-leave-it” bundles of channels that include programs they do not want, will not watch and may even find objectionable. Bundling helps operators to make money from channels consumers don’t watch—channels owned by incumbents that take up space on the dial that could be filled by truly independent and diverse programming alternatives.
Although cable companies have begun making it possible for customers of some cable services to block unwanted channels, cable consumers still are forced to pay for those channels and thereby provide financial support to sustain programming they find offensive. Also, the 30 to 40 million analog cable customers have to navigate a time-consuming and confusing process just to get their cable company to explain how to “trap” individual channels.
Cable companies could offer cable channel choice tomorrow, but they are strongly resisting providing consumers this reasonable option. They currently have a pipeline to most American homes, significant say (along with broadcasters) over the types of television programs being developed and aired, and the freedom to set cable prices pretty much as they like. That’s because cable companies simply do not face the healthy pressure of competition. Indeed, today 98 percent of Americans have access to only one cable company. Satellite service is a limited competitor, constrained by some technical and cost limitations, and effectively unable to offer service comparable to cable’s high-speed Internet service.
Cable rates are up about 60 percent since Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act – rising nearly three times faster than inflation during this same period. Cable channel choice could help reverse this trend. Under this system, consumers should pay an estimated $1 to $3 per channel. Since most families watch only 17 channels or fewer, cable channel choice could significantly reduce cable bills.
Furthermore, it would encourage those creating the programming to keep their prices in line with what the market will bear, and it would encourage them to produce quality fare that consumers will subscribe to and pay for. Cable channel choice could also create opportunities to reach a wider audience for diverse, non-profit, noncommercial and independent channels and producers — which have been frozen out by the half-dozen gatekeepers that own three-quarters of the popular channels on every cable system in the country.
Groups across the political spectrum support cable channel choice, and the empowerment it will bring to individuals and families who are fed up with their television choices and cable prices. Please join us in supporting this worthwhile system.
Gene Kimmelman
Senior Policy Director
Consumers Union
Mark Cooper
Research Director
Consumer Federation of America
Linda Foley
Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO
Jeff Chester
Executive Director
Center for Digital Democracy
Ben Scott
Policy Director
Free Press
Jon Rintels
Executive Director
Center for Creative Voices in Media

Cc: Federal Communications Commission
Chairman Kevin Martin
Commissioner Michael Copps
Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy
Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein

Dear Congressional Leader,
The problem of raunchy programming pouring out of our television sets day and night has become an issue of national concern. Hollywood, which is responsible for producing and airing such offensive material, with ultra-violent images, obscene language and graphic sexual dialogue has washed its hands of responsibility for the consequences stating that consumers—parents—should be more proactive in safeguarding their families from this offensive material.
Over-the-air broadcast networks have to abide by decency standards. There is, however, no such jurisdiction over cable television, which is far more offensive. Cable companies enjoy a virtual monopoly forcing consumers not just to take offensive programs, but to pay for them. This is unconscionable. Why can you pick up the phone, order and pay for HBO if you want it, but can’t pick up the phone, cancel and stop paying for MTV if you don’t? When you visit your local convenience store to purchase milk and bread, should you also be forced to take and pay for a carton of cigarettes, too?
There is one solution that is as obvious as it is simple. It is acceptable to conservatives, moderates and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. It is cable choice, the ability for the consumer to choose what he takes and pays for when he orders cable. The technology exists and the system could be implemented overnight—but the cable monopolies won’t allow it.
We are concerned about the raunch flooding the airwaves and outraged at being forced to take it and to subsidize it. It is time for Congress to break this cable stranglehold. It is the ultimate consumer right to choose to purchase only the products he desires. Just as this is true for the convenience store, so too is it true for cable television.
L. Brent Bozell
Founder and President
Parents Television Council
David Keene
American Conservative Union
Jim Martin
60 Plus Association
Rev. Don Wildmon
American Family Association
Thomas DeWeese
American Policy Center
Richard Viguerie
American Target Advertising
Gary L. Bauer
American Values
Phyllis Schafly
Eagle Forum
Bob Peters
Morality in Media
Thomas Kilgannon
Freedom Alliance
Ron Robinson
Young America’s Foundation
Amy Ridenour
National Center for Public Policy Research
Donald Irvine
Accuracy in Media
Stephen Clouse
Stephen Clouse & Associates
Paul M. Weyrich
Coalitions for America
Phil Burress
Citizens for Community Values
For more information contact: Matt Hartwig, 202-462-6262