The Best of Several Bad Options Is Still a Bad Option

Cable services shouldn't let the Federal Communications Commission bully them into offering "family-friendly" programming packages.

After staying quiet for the last couple months, the Federal Communications Commission seems to finally have awakened, squinting and tossing jabs as it rushes into the light of day.

The “C” sections of the nation’s newspapers were awash this morning with reports that cable television companies Time Warner, Comcast and four others are drawing up plans to offer subscribers a lineup of “family-friendly” cable packages as an alternative to packages that include allegedly “indecent” shows. The move is a defensive one by the cable industry, aimed at trying to defuse the regulatory zeal of FCC chair Kevin Martin and a group of self-appointed moral arbiters in Congress who want to regulate incidents of alleged indecency on cable television with fines and outright bans.

It’s been rumored that Martin has been pushing the “family-friendly” option as part of his pending approval of the sale of Adelphia Communications to Time Warner Cable and Comcast. Given that, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the two companies have come out publicly for the “family” option, just in time for the FCC to make its decision.

As Salon’s Michael Scherer wrote today, “For most of the industry, the family-friendly cable package is the least onerous of Martin’s three proposals to change cable television. Martin had also suggested extending broadcast television indecency rules to cover basic cable and requiring cable operators to offer ‘à la carte’ channels, a system in which households could purchase each cable station separately. Those other options are likely to be tabled for the time being.”

“Least onerous,” perhaps, but the “family-friendly” option still has the potential to do plenty of harm to small, experimental stations and programs, and to media diversity in general. Consider the fate of smaller stations, like Current TV, which is doing something genuinely new by running viewer-generated news items and documentaries. Would Current have a fighting chance under this new program? The way the system works now, large cable companies in effect subsidize smaller channels when they bundle them into their cable packages, but with this new, pure choice model, the chance of a viewer accidentally discovering interesting, new programming is cut down substantially.

What’s more, there’s the danger of a trickle-down effect. The family plan could very well pressure cable channels into censoring some of their shows in order to make them more palatable to the family bundles — thus reducing the already slim pickings offered for mature, thoughtful adults on cable television. And what does “family-friendly” mean, exactly, and who decides what shows are included under this broad heading?

In trying to digest all this, it’s worthwhile to note that Martin has, up to this point, favored the á la carte option (and conservative groups like the Parents Television Council are still pushing hard for it), which would mandate that cable channels be sold to the consumer individually instead of by the bundle model we currently use. Simon Dumenco, no fan of the á la carte option, has a great takedown of the idea in Ad Age, writing that “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.” All joking aside, Dumenco’s larger point — that diversity of choice on television is a good thing — is an important one. He notes that the á la carte option “means pushing for monochromatic, undiversified culture,” and we couldn’t agree more, though since it appears to be temporarily off the table, he does seem to be doing a bit of shadow boxing here.

While cultural critics have for years been decrying the death of the “public square” in our national life (see Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone for the idea’s most cogent treatment) the saving grace of our nation’s cable system (if there is one) is that it gives us just that: the opportunity for a shared national experience. Corny as that may sound, consider this: Given the choice, how many liberals do you think are going to pay for Fox News? How many conservatives are going to pay for CNN (even given that the station is hardly the liberal Fox)? Not many, that’s for sure. There’s something to be said for the experience of being exposed to voices and ideas with which you don’t agree.

As Cass Sunstein argued in his 2001 book,, the rise of highly partisan, or niche, media signals a disheartening trend away from the healthy debate a functioning democracy needs to sustain itself. If citizens are content to merely plug in to their own TV shows, radio programs and Web sites that do little more than regurgitate their own preferred view of the world back to them, there’s little chance of learning anything about the world as it actually is. Democracy, Sunstein holds, relies in large part on shared experiences that can be filtered through personal political beliefs.

So, in the end, while choice is a great thing, it isn’t always the only thing, and these “family-friendly” cable bundles, while doing the job parents should do — “shielding” children from nudity and violence on TV — look to be just another step in the niche culture that is spreading throughout the country.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.