Consumers are starting to see progress in their fight to stop paying for cable television channels they don’t want and a leading advocate of family-friendly programming says the pressure will only grow from here and help drive trashy programming off the air.
On April 17, Verizon FiOS announced it was introducing stripped down options for customers. The base package is now just 35 channels and customers then have the option of adding ten-channel bundles based on genres such as news, sports, pop culture, kids’ programming and more.
Parents Television Council President Tim Winter says this alone is not a huge change but it could be the first step in that direction. He says it reminds him of Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon.
“He said it was a was a small step for man but a giant leap for mankind. I think there’s something very analogous here. It is a baby step, but it’s a step in the right direction. It is a step toward a video distributor trying to allow their consumers to have more choice and that’s a good thing,” said Winter, who is optimistic this move by Verizon could be the tip of the iceberg.
“Does this lead to even more choice for families? Does this give them even more options. We believe ultimately it will, even though this step itself is rather small,” he said.
There’s already a major roadblock in the way of Verizon’s plans. Sports giant ESPN filed suit, accusing the provider of breaching their contract.
“ESPN is at the forefront of embracing innovative ways to deliver high-quality content and value to consumers on multiple platforms, but that must be done in compliance with our agreements,” said ESPN in a written statement. “We simply ask that Verizon abide by the terms of our contracts.”
Winter finds the statement laughable.
“It’s interesting that they say they’re very innovative. They’re innovative as long as they can still force people to pay them for something folks might not want. I guess that is fairly innovative if you can get away with it,” he said.
The outcome of the lawsuit, which Verizon vows to fight, could determine whether the cable choice movement thrives or craters. Winter disagrees. He sees the legal fight as entirely positive, no matter the outcome.
“I think just the presence of this issue in the public eye is a win for the public. Regardless of how it comes down, I think it’s exposing the programmers for what they’re allowed to do by not allowing consumers to opt out. It’s exposing the whole cartel-like business practice of the cable industry,” said Winter.
Winter says ESPN has a lot of nerve to wage a legal battle over a “baby step” by Verizon.
“They make literally many billions of dollars every year by forcing subscribers to pay for networks they don’t want. Our estimates are that ESPN charges something like seven dollars per month per subscriber to every single subscriber, whether it’s cable or satellite or Verizon or AT&T. There is no way for the consumers to opt out and not have the requirement of paying in their monthly bill,” said Winter.
He says the principle applies for far more objectionable programming than what ESPN brings to your television.
“Families don’t want to be forced to pay for pornographic content, but they are. People who don’t have children are forced to pay for children’s programming. People who are conservative are forced to pay for liberal programming and vice versa,” said Winter.
True a la carte cable choice would force each channel to rise or fall on it’s own. Winter says that’s how the system should work.
“No other product in the stream of commerce forces you to pay for so many products you don’t want in order to have the ones you do want. The products that aren’t able to face a market demand will go away just as they should,” said Winter.
One concern raised on both sides of the debate is the unbundling cable television could mean much higher cable bills. Consumers technically get many unpopular channels for free by paying for the popular ones. If cable choice arrives, the fear is paying for each individual channel could be a hit on the pocketbook.
Winter says that’s not necessarily the case.
“The average cable family only watches 17 networks. That’s whether they have 50 to choose from, or a hundred or five hundred,” he said. “I don’t know how you can make an economic argument if you’re the cable industry to say, ‘By adding another hundred networks you’re not going to watch, somehow you’re getting a better deal.’ You’re paying for all of them. The math just doesn’t add up.”
One of the main reasons the Parents Television Council is staunchly supportive of cable choice is because a lot of inappropriate content emanates from channels cable customers must accept. In recent months, the group helped to force “Sex Box” off the air. That was a program on WE tv that featured couples having sex in an obscured room on a set and them reviewing their experience with therapists. It was cancelled after only a few episodes.
Winter says the raunchy content is still coming, most recently through to A&E’s “Seven Year Itch,” which will reportedly feature couples married roughly seven years swapping spouses and sharing everything with their new mates, including their beds.
“This is A&E’s latest attempt to glamorize or celebrate the swapping of sexual partners as a lifestyle. Is there really a demand for this type of show? The answer is no because they tried it before and they failed,” said Winter.
“They’re able to do this only because you cannot pick up the phone and unsubscribe to A&E if you still want to have History Channel or ESPN or Fox News or whatever else you watch,” said Winter.
The Parents Television Council will keep pushing for cable choice. In the meantime, they plan to make sponsors of shows like “Seven Year Itch” feel the heat.
“What we will do is keep up our pressure on the sponsors of that program to make sure that they know where their media dollars are going and what content they’re underwriting. Ultimately, if the advertising dollars go away, these programs cannot survive. We hope that responsible corporations are not going to align with that type of messaging,” said Winter.