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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
16 July 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 29

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Bundled Cable Packages Trap Us into Paying for Trash TV

If cable channels were unbundled and customers were free to select only those channels they wanted, trash TV would be forced to compete in the marketplace.

by Jerome F. Winzig

Suppose you wanted to subscribe to several newspapers and periodicals. Let's say you wanted to get Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the National Geographic magazine, and Commonweal magazine. However, when you contacted them, you were told that all subscriptions were now handled by a universal delivery service.

Suppose further that when you contacted this delivery service, you were told it was impossible to order individual subscriptions. You could only order a standard delivery package that also included Maxim magazine for men, USA Today, Stuff magazine for men, Entertainment Weekly, the National Enquirer, Cosmopolitan magazine, Rolling Stones magazine, and Vanity Fair.

The notion may sound farfetched and absurd, but that's exactly what happens with cable television in communities across the United States today. A cable TV customer who wants to subscribe to CNN, the Discovery Channel, C-SPAN, the Family Channel, and Headline News is required to subscribe to -- and pay for -- such additional channels as MTV, WB, E! Entertainment Television, Comedy Central, and USA Network. In the process, customers are trapped into paying for a wide array of what can, at best, be termed "trash TV."

The garbage programs we are required to pay for include E! Entertainment Television's sick Howard Stern show (four episodes daily!) and the soft-porn "Wild on..." series (two or three episodes daily). They include WB's Jerry Springer show, a particularly grotesque talk show marketed intentionally to teenagers. In addition to MTV's regular fare of music videos that push the envelope of permissible dress and conduct on a daily basis, we also pay for its "Undressed," series, a show apparently premised on the notion that teens who do not have sex are abnormal and naive.

The list goes on. In order to subscribe to C-SPAN, we also have to subscribe to Comedy Central's "The Man Show," which finds comedy in callously and flagrantly treating women as nothing more than sex objects. In order to subscribe to the History channel, we also have to subscribe to USA Network's Nikita, which specializes in sex and violence.

Digital cable promises to widen the range of trash TV enormously. Channels that provide quality programming you want are packaged with channels you don't want that offer many varieties of violence, pornography, and foul language. The new technical features that digital cable makes possible are only available in packages that provide still more trash programming.

This doesn't happen because of consumer demand. Instead, cable channels negotiate business deals that require the inclusion of their channels in the cable television provider's "standard" package. They don't want their channels to be optional.

Curiously, this entire practice receives very little attention from so-called consumer advocates who for years have decried bundling on the part of computer hardware and software manufacturers and have gone to court to force them to unbundle their packages. Where are the voices asking that cable television providers unbundle their channels?

Such an approach would put power back in the hands of individual consumers. It would let each of us select and pay only for the specific channels we want to receive. It would provide parents with a better solution for controlling what their children watch. Instead of paying for garbage programming and then setting up locks on those shows, parents could simply cease to buy programs they despise.

Why doesn't this happen? Perhaps it's because consumer choice would put many trash TV channels out of business. Deprived of profitable business contracts that force their fare on cable customers, they would have to depend on the marketplace for their survival. What a novel idea!

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     Minneapolis, Minnesota

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