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The death of diversity in cable TV programming

WOULD THE civil rights movement of the 1960s have succeeded without the help of television?

Johnathan Rodgers, CEO of TV One, a new African-American network, recently posed the question -- with skepticism. The indelible images of Bull Connor's dogs, and the spiritual nonviolent resistance to them, made a human struggle palpable for Americans otherwise absorbed in more mundane affairs.

Television today, particularly cable, is in some ways both a manifest of the civil rights struggle and the very tool of its continuing execution. A generation after the march over the Pettus Bridge, African-Americans, Latinos, and women own, produce, and star in a rich menu of cable programming which illuminates their culture, mobility, and challenges -- both internal and external.

Much of this success is owed to the very model of the cable television platform, where developing channels are placed alongside established ones -- a platform that some media critics now want to replace with a government mandated pay-per-channel (or "a la carte") regime where consumers would have to pay a set price for individual channels. And if these would-be regulators succeed, the diversity in cable programming -- a fruit of the civil rights movement -- will die with it.

The ringleaders of the effort are a political odd-couple of sorts. For the ultra-conservative Concerned Women of America, whose censorship campaigns have lost in the courts, the effort seems to be "censorship-lite" -- an effort to filter out networks like MTV from America's homes.

And for the uber-left Consumers Union, long bent on cable price regulation, the effort seems driven by a kind of undifferentiated animus. "We are looking for a way [to] blow [the cable model] apart," bellowed its Washington representative recently, showing an odd indifference to cable programmers' warning that such regulations would be the death knell for program diversity.

While to some, the pay-per-channel proposal has a certain intuitive appeal -- why shouldn't we simply pay for only those programs we watch -- the proposal reflects a hopelessly naive understanding of how the industry actually works.

Once a cable operator purchases a new network, it reaps the benefits of the "shared platform," otherwise known as basic cable. The new programming has an instant, extraordinary marketing perk: Its content will be seen by tens of millions of viewers as they surf channels, many of whom will be become won-over viewers. Reaching that many potential viewers through promotional ads could cost tens of millions of dollars -- costs that could either be prohibitive for a new programmer or which would be passed onto consumers.

And on this none-too-insignificant common perch, new programmers can charge advertisers a premium because of the numerous potential viewers. Since it can cost upwards of $100 million and many years of red ink to bring a new network successfully to the marketplace, this kind of double-barreled subsidy means life and death to most new networks. "If there is a better model [for new cable programmers], I'd like to see it," said Lisa Hall, co-founder of Oxygen, a wildly successful cable network featuring women's programming.

Most experts have been less than charitable in their views about the proposal. Three major studies -- one by the Congress's nonpartisan General Accounting Office, the others by the reputable Booz Allen and financial analyst Bear Stearns -- conclude that cable prices could rise for most viewers under a pay-per-channel regime. Two of the studies showed that any customer wanting to select more than six channels would see higher monthly bills. And all the studies suggest that new programmers would face much higher hurdles in entering the video marketplace.

Additionally, well over 100 of the leading civil rights and liberal policy organizations have joined with scores of religious and economic conservatives -- from the Rainbow/Push Coalition to Rev. Jerry Falwell, from the NAACP to Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform -- arguing that the a la carte proposal would decimate niche programming and diversity in the industry.

Groups who rarely agree on anything now argue that the a la carte proposal is just the next step in media concentration: Only the richest and most powerful programmers would survive in an a la carte world.

Media concentration is bad policy and bad politics. The feds are better off staying away from this one.

C. DeLores Tucker is the National Chair of the National Congress of Black Women Inc. 

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