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Evangelicals Split Over ‘A La Carte’ Cable TV

Religious conservatives have been at the forefront of proposals to allow consumers to purchase only cable TV channels they choose, instead of the bundled packages that are offered today, as a way to combat smut.

But with the Federal Communications Commission now supporting the major policy change, some are having second thoughts, saying it could hurt religious broadcasters.

Two years ago groups including the Parents Television Council, American Family Association, Family Research Council and Focus on the Family bought newspaper ads endorsing “channel choice,” also referred as a la carte cable programming.

“Consumers–and especially families–must be afforded the ability to pick and choose and pay for only those networks they want in their homes,” L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, said recently.

Last March Bozell praised the selection of Kevin Martin as the new head of the FCC. Nominated to the commission by President Bush in 2001 and with close ties to the White House, Martin has been a leader in the FCC’s crackdown on indecency.

“For several years, I have been urging the cable and satellite industry to give parents additional tools to help them address the increasing amount of coarse programming on television,” Martin said in December, commenting on a decision by some cable companies to voluntarily offer “family tier” channel bundles, in part to head off possible government involvement.

Another conservative evangelical group, Concerned Women for America, contended in a 2004 position paper that a-la-carte pricing would require cable channels like Bravo and FX to be more responsive to their target audience and give consumers more leverage against channels that push the envelope against decency standards.

“For too long cable executives have had the power to tell consumers what will come in their house and what they will pay for,” added Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. “It’s time the American people be given the freedom to choose for themselves.”

But such talk strikes fear in the heart of faith-based channels, who view it as a frontal attack on religious broadcasting.

“Though well-intentioned, the fact is that a la carte would threaten the very existence of
religious broadcasting and the vital ministry conducted over the television airwaves,”
said Jerry Falwell, president of the “Old Time Gospel Hour.”

Falwell, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Paul Crouch of the Trinty Broadcasting Network, Robert Sutton of FamilyNet TV (owned by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention) and others are banding together in a group called The Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition to oppose the change.

The coalition says proposed federal regulation for a-la-carte pricing “would have a devastating effect on the inspirational programming we currently provide.”

“Faith-based and family oriented broadcasts provide a vital public service by providing wholesome, inspirational, and moral content within a media marketplace sorely in need of such an alternative,” the group says on its Web site. “Many proponents of a la carte are well intentioned, but they simply have not considered the effect such regulations would have on the availability and distribution of religious and family broadcasting.”

Under the proposals, instead of receiving most of their digital channels exclusively in bundles as they do today, consumers could be allowed the choice of purchasing such channels either on
an a-la-carte basis or as part of a “mixed bundle” that would allow consumers interested in only a few channels to buy the wants they want.

Supporters say it could save consumers money and give parents more control over programs they believe are unsuitable for their children. It also would stop forcing consumers to pay for channels they don’t want. While the average cable package has about 70 channels, the average family watches only about 17.

Religious broadcasters fear that many viewers, especially those who aren’t religious, won’t pay for religious programming.

“It would limit our audiences considerably and be a challenge to all of us,” Jerry Rose, president of the evangelical Total Living Network, which carries “The 700 Club,” told the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.

Rose said a big chunk of religious networks’ audience comes from viewers who inadvertently discover religious programs while channel surfing through the channel lineup in their cable package.

It also could hurt fund raising. Much of CBN’s income is generated by telethons–68 percent of its revenue is from donations–and that could suffer if the audience shrank.

It also could have implications for social and political impact. Robertson, in particular, often uses his television program for political commentary. While often controversial, experts say, a large television audience gives Robertson an air of credibility he might not otherwise enjoy.

Even Christians might skip a la carte religious channels.

“People may say, ‘Well, we go to church on Sunday, we try to teach our kids good lessons, we can tune-in to Christian programs on the radio, and it would be nice if it was cheaper, but it cuts into our budget,'” communications scholar Megan Mullen told the Virginian-Pilot.

The FCC cannot force the cable industry or Congress to institute per-channel pricing. But its latest discussion has encouraged a-la-carte advocates such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said last month that he would introduce legislation to “entice” cable distributors to offer per-channel service in addition to cable packages.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.