FCC: Cable’s family tiers have problems

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ATLANTA (AP) – In a sign the cable industry may face additional pressure over decency issues, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday there are “legitimate concerns” over the viability of family-friendly programming tiers cable operators have proposed.

Cable companies said in recent months they would offer G-rated packages of programming after FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said last fall that he wanted the cable industry to do more to address parental concerns about raunchy shows.

The companies had hoped that the “family tiers” would address those concerns, but Martin said Tuesday he sees problems with the practicality of those offerings, particularly since they don’t generally include sports programming.

Martin, speaking to a group of reporters at the cable industry’s annual trade show in Atlanta, noted that Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia and others have also said the tiers offered to date may not prove popular with consumers.

Martin put the cable industry on notice last fall about indecency issues and also told them that offering cable channels on a pick-and-choose, or a la carte basis, could be good for consumers. That was a reversal of the FCC’s previous position.

The cable industry is firmly opposed to unbundling their packages of channels, saying it would hurt the business model by raising overall costs for consumers and putting smaller channels out of business.

Cable operators much prefer to offer standard “bundles” of channels, and programmers want their channels be carried to as wide a potential audience as possible.

Earlier Tuesday, several cable industry executives at the annual trade show affirmed their opposition to a la carte pricing. “If a la carte happens, everybody loses,” Mark Cuban, the chairman of HDNet LLC and owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, said at a news conference.

“A la carte isn’t a great way to sell networks,” Glenn Britt, the CEO of Time Warner Inc.’s Time Warner Cable unit, said during a panel discussion. “It’s also the wrong way to sell programming. Most TV shows don’t sell on their own.”

Martin emphasized that his agency did not intend to regulate what kind of shows can be aired, but he said that “in general, having some kind of additional tiering options is a good idea.”

Martin also said it was too early to reach any firm conclusions about the family-friendly offerings of cable companies since it would take time to see how they play out in the marketplace.

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