Honey, I shrank the cable-television universe

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How do you give TV viewers "choice"? Simple: If you're FCC chairman Kevin Martin, you do it by reducing their options.

If you've noticed the phrase "a la carte cable"-i.e., mandating that cable channels be sold to consumers individually, instead of in bundles-creeping into headlines lately, it's because Martin is its new champion. For the FCC, that's a huge shift, which pits it squarely against the cable industry (cable execs mostly hate the idea because top-rated cable channels that rake in big bucks tend to subsidize less-profitable niche offerings).

Why the sudden change? Kevin Martin, quite simply, is jockeying to please his ultra-conservative base-which thinks of the bulk of cable TV as a filthy cesspool that must be either be cleaned up or declared off-limits to average Americans. (Some background: Martin was deputy general counsel to the 2000 Bush campaign, and his wife Catherine has worked for Dick Cheney.)

Last year, when the FCC (under Martin's predecessor) issued a report effectively condemning a la carte, even a lot of non-liberals concurred. Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, for instance, told the press that a la carte "would only result in limiting choices and driving up costs for all consumers. The United States has the most robust and diversified programming anywhere in the world and there's a good reason for that-our government does not mandate programming choice. It's a bad idea."

But other conservatives freaked out-particularly Parents Television Council Executive Director Tim Winter, who declared that "the prime reason that so many people want cable choice: Cable is completely awash in raunch."

Now, the idea that the only way to give parents choice is to restrict choice for all viewers is a classic bit of doublethink. It's a lot like the parents of fat kids insisting that potato chips and Snickers bars be banned so that they might have the "choice" of feeding their pudgy offspring more nutritious fare. The even scarier thing is that Martin has publicly flirted with wanting to get decency laws applied to cable and satellite programming, not just broadcast.

Now, of course I'm exercised about all this because I'm a grown man living in a free country, and I'm mortified by the idea of my government forcing Tony Soprano to say "darn" and "fudge." But I'm also disturbed by the prospect of the further Balkanization of media.

This already happens, to a large extent, in the way that people consume news: As Kurt Andersen recently noted in New York Magazine, "Public discourse now takes place in echo chambers, each side preaching to its own choir."

But what happens when that sort of self-selecting media consumption moves beyond politics to basic programming? Let's not forget that the diversity of viewpoints and lifestyles shown on TV-the medium that still dominates our collective national mind share-has arguably been the most important catalyst for social progress in this country.

For instance, millions of white Americans, of course, were educated about civil rights through TV news coverage of the likes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but they also learned to respect and even love black people in the form of pop-cultural figures like Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey.

It's telling that Burns invoked national pride in praising our "robust and diversified programming," because that's what this debate is really about: Pushing for a la carte cable means pushing for monochromatic, undiversified culture. Even as red-state sensibilities have saturated TV-witness the rise of squeaky-clean fare like "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars," not to mention those recent Pope John Paul II bio-pics on both ABC and CBS-the Kevin Martins of the world would seek to prevent children and adults from getting exposed to any more of that nasty blue-state degeneracy. (The PTC, for starters, seems to be very, very afraid of gay TV characters.)

A final irony of the conservative a la carte crusade is that conservative-favorite Fox News could never have gotten off the ground in an a la carte world. (Everybody would have said, "I already have one 24-hour news channel; why would I pay for another?") Same thing with Pax (now known as "i"), and countless others.

Of course, if Kevin Martin really is serious about wanting to extend the FCC's powers of censorship over cable, there'd be one upside: He won't have to hire nearly as many censors to monitor the ever dwindling number of cable offerings.

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