May 20, 2004 Thursday

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Los Angeles Times

From Lexis Nexis

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has asked the Federal Communications Commission to report on whether cable and satellite television providers could give customers more choice over the programming they receive.

In a letter dated Tuesday, top members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the FCC to report by Nov. 18 on the potential merits and drawbacks of offering programming on either an "a la carte" or themed-tier basis.

Interest in picking individual channels, or from among more packages of channels arranged by theme, has risen as both the cost of pay television and the decency of some programming have come into question on Capitol Hill.

The lawmakers, including committee chairman Texas Republican Joe Barton and the ranking Democrat, John Dingell of Michigan, asked what the effect would be on prices to consumers of greater choice of individual channels or programming tiers.

Other questions for the commission included whether this greater choice would curb the availability of independent, niche, religious and ethnic programming.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. predicted in a statement that an FCC study would confirm that letting consumers make channel selections a la carte would lead to fewer channels at higher prices.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, came to the same conclusion last October, the industry group noted.

"The economic facts have not changed," the NCTA said.

The GAO's yearlong study had been requested by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to explain the 40 percent increase in cable TV bills over the previous five years.

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, welcomed the new study request.

"We are pleased that Congress has listened to the overwhelming public outcry against cable rate increases and requirements that consumers purchase channels they do not want or that they find objectionable," said Gene Kimmelman, senior public policy director for Consumers Union.