Channeling demand

FCC CHAIRMAN KEVIN MARTIN sent a winter chill down the spine of the cable TV industry this week, telling a Senate committee that "something needs to be done" about the increase in "coarse" programming on television.

He laid out three options. The first (and by far the worst) would require cable networks such as FX and ESPN to comply with the same decency regulations as over-the-air networks such as Fox and ABC. A second would have cable and satellite operators offer a bundle of "family friendly" networks as an alternative to the current grab-bag packages of optional channels. The third -- and most appealing -- option would let parents sign up just for the channels that they want their kids to watch, rather than having to choose from among packages of channels selected by their service provider.

Martin is right that television in the era of "CSI" and "Desperate Housewives" is more violent, profane and sexually suggestive than ever. And giving parents more ways to block programs they don't want their children to see is a much better approach than having the government play nanny -- or censor. Besides, making channels available a la carte would be a boon not just to worried parents but to consumers who resent having to sign up for 80 or more channels just to get the dozen or so they really want.

But as Martin well knows, his agency has little power to force any of his suggestions to become reality. Nor is Congress well-equipped to turn his ideas into mandates. Decency rules may be defensible when applied to broadcast programming that is beamed uninvited into homes, but that logic doesn't apply to channels that people pay to receive. And forcing cable operators to offer channels a la carte would interfere with their contracts with the major TV networks, which require them to offer the networks' new or niche-oriented channels in the same tier as their more popular ones.

Further, big cable operators and media companies argue that selling channels a la carte would yield higher fees for viewers and a crippling loss of revenue for networks devoted to niche markets. This argument is self-serving. The cable universe overflows with channels owned by cable operators and the six largest media conglomerates, whose long-term pacts lock up access to viewers for years. (For the record, Tribune Co., parent company of the Los Angeles Times, owns 26 local broadcast stations and one cable network, with a minority interest in another.)

The nation's two largest phone companies, AT&T and Verizon, are modifying their wires to compete with cable. Their technology is well-suited to delivering a la carte channels or programs on demand. But they are running into stiff resistance from the major media conglomerates.

Such reluctance to experiment with a new business model is a blunder, particularly when many lawmakers are itching to do something about indecency on pay TV and consumers are finding plenty of new ways to be entertained. Before the FCC or Congress goes down a risky regulatory path, somebody should test the market for a la carte service.