Editorial: Going a la carte is right for cable

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It was Dec. 2, 1992, that cable pioneer John C. Malone rocked the industry with his vision of a "500-channel universe." Less remembered is how he proposed consumers pay for many channels: On an a-la-carte basis for a monthly fee as little as 50ยข a channel.

Thirteen years later, a-la-carte options may finally get a chance. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin last week called on cable and satellite providers to voluntarily look at ways to let subscribers pick and choose channels. That's a good idea for consumers and, in the end, advertisers. The cable industry needs to get on board.

Much has changed since 1992: The Internet; more ownership consolidation of cable systems and cable channels; deregulation of cable rates. A-la-carte pricing never took off. Instead, cable and satellite services force consumers to pay for an outsize basic bundle to get whatever handful of channels they really want.

Mr. Martin's primary goal is to give parents more access to "family-friendly" programs and not be forced to pay for channels with content "unsuitable for children." He floated the threat of new regulation if the industry doesn't respond: Apply broadcast channels' indecency rules to all cable channels in a system's basic-cable package.

More content regulation is the wrong approach. Instead, the ideas Mr. Martin offered on a-la-carte pricing could serve both his desire to give parents more control over content and consumers more control over what they pay. He contends a-la-carte pricing could both be economically feasible and "in consumers' best interests."

TV is moving toward an a-la-carte world of on-demand programming-pay-per-view, DVRs, Internet, wireless, iPod. It's an appealing future: Consumers pay for content and channels they covet; advertisers seek more innovative ways to reach that engaged audience; cable channels work harder to produce better content and adopt new strategies to let consumers sample it. Business models are changing; cable must change. Adding a-la-carte options to cable services today would be one step toward that future.

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