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'A la carte cable TV' could finally be on the horizon

The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is considering proposals for unbundling cable TV subscriptions.
The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is considering proposals for unbundling cable TV subscriptions.
Matt Rourke, AP

Draft legislation floated earlier this week by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) suggests the day fast approaching when consumers get to choose which cable channels they subscribe to and pay for.

However, the practical realities of the legislative process and special-interest lobbying cloud the forecast of just how soon American households will be able to select the channels that get piped into their living rooms.

Eshoo, the ranking member of the House subcommittee on communications and technology, publicly released a draft bill on Monday called the Video CHOICE Act (for Consumers Have Options in Choosing Entertainment). One policy area the bill explores is how to ensure cable/satellite customers can choose which channels they’ll pay for.

“(Eshoo’s) proposed bill is similar, but not exactly the same, as one introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and supported by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that would require cable distributors to offer customers the right to buy only those channels they wish to pay to watch,” Alex Ben Block wrote for the Hollywood Reporter.

Eshoo’s proposal quickly drew praise from the media watchdog group Parents Television Council, which supports “a la carte cable,” under the theory that families shouldn’t have to receive risqué channels like MTV in order to subscribe to cable/satellite services.

“The stranglehold that programmers have over distributors and, more importantly, the stranglehold they have over consumers, urgently needs to be broken,” Parents Television Council president Tim Winter said Monday via press release. “This bill would help pave the way for more options in the marketplace.”

However, when the House subcommittee on communications and technology met Wednesday, Eshoo’s bill was much discussed — but for reasons that basically had nothing to do with the issue of unbundling cable subscriptions. Instead, nearly all the discussion generated by Eshoo’s draft legislation centered on proposed protocols for averting blackouts during negotiation disputes between broadcasters and cable/satellite companies over retransmission fees.

On Wednesday after the subcommittee met, the Hill’s Julian Hattem wrote, “(Eshoo), the top Democrat on the House (subcommittee) charged with overseeing the cable television marketplace, is worried that blackouts such as that from a recent dispute between CBS and Time Warner Cable could easily happen again. … Eshoo and fellow legislators pressed for a rewrite of the laws guiding the way that cable companies pay broadcasters for the right to show their channels, a process known as retransmission consent.”

In terms of unbundling cable subscriptions, one more factor muddying the waters is that nobody really knows how and when industry behemoths like Comcast and Time-Warner Cable will definitively weigh in on the issue.

“It is unclear how much support Eshoo would have in the House,” the Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Ben Block noted. “The cable industry itself has been ambivalent on a la carte legislation, with some like TWC favoring it and others like Comcast opposing it.”