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As consumers face ever increasing cable bills and all-or-nothing packages in today's cable and satellite TV market, they are getting fed up and are demanding the right to pick and choose only the channels they want.

Cable operators argue that rates are increasing due to the rising cost of programming.  But it is the cable operators that require consumers to buy tiers of programming that include a large number of channels consumers do not want.  And it is the programming giants who use popular channels as leverage to force cable and satellite operators to put less-popular channels into your package.

Cable's Lack of Flexibility

Cable companies do not give consumers flexible programming choices because they generally require consumers to pay for large programming service tiers. And to get certain channels, cable companies often make you buy several packages of programming just to get the one channel you want.  And according to the Government Accountability Office (PDF), because the average consumer watches fewer than 17 channels, consumers have to buy a lot of channels they do not want in order to get the ones they do want.

Cable's rigid bundling practices let cable companies, not consumers, control the programming that comes into homes. Consumers cannot choose to pay for only the channels they really want. With bundling, many consumers find themselves paying for cable and satellite programming they find offensive or indecent.

For example, consumers who want to watch family friendly programming on the expanded basic tier also have to buy MTV, which some find offensive. They can block this channel out, but their dollars still subsidize the channel. Read the letter that Consumers Union sent with Consumer Federation of America, Parents Television Council, and Concerned Women for America to the House Energy and Commerce Committee as the Committee considered cable channel choice in 2004.

Consumers Aren't Satisfied

A recent poll found that less than one-third of Americans are satisfied with the channel bundles cable currently offers.  Of those polled, more than two-thirds said they would prefer to choose programming for themselves.  Read the Consumers Union poll (PDF) and the Concerned Women for America poll (PDF).

Choose Your Channels – A Solution?

A "Choose Your Channels" or "a la carte channel" selection option under which consumers could choose -- and pay for -- only the cable and satellite programming they want would give consumers control over what programming comes into their own living rooms.  Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America have found this would cost about $1 to $3 a channel per month (PDF). 

For example, people who want ESPN could pay for it, and the people who want MTV could pay for that.  And a person just wanting the cooking channel should have a cost that is lower than a person who wants the most popular (and pricey) sports channel.  Consumers who wanted to stick with large bundles of channels, such as expanded basic, could also do that –and they could also choose from new themed tiers, like a children's tier and a sports tier.  These choices should be available to all cable and satellite TV subscribers.

Diverse and Independent Programming

Much of the diverse and independent programming that exists now is only available to consumers if they buy expensive digital packages.  While millions of American homes subscribe to cable, most people are buying analog cable packages that include basic and expanded basic programming.  These packages offer broadcast programs, and channels owned either by cable operators, broadcasters, or other media conglomerates, but very little ethnic or independent programming.

All of the country's top 20 cable channels are owned by big media conglomerates such as Viacom and Fox. Two-thirds of cable's customers don't get digital -- and therefore do not have access to most of the ethnic, targeted, niche or independent programming cable offers.

Some cable operators argue that allowing consumers to choose their channels will harm the development of niche programming, such as for people of color or ethnic minorities.  Yet there are few if any independent channels serving these audiences. 

The actual experience of many minority programmers is that it is impossible for them to get onto the cable companies' popular tiers — or even get carried at all.  There is no reason to believe that channels serving particular ethnic or linguistic groups would not flourish under an a la carte system.

Independent cable programmers like America Channel, Black Education Network, Christian Television Network, Urban Broadcasting Company have spoken out against the current cable industry—where a small number of companies control what programming survives in the market, and have suggested that channel choice is a potential solution worth discussing.  Even former cable industry executive John Malone has said this is the case, as has Consumers Union in a letter (PDF) to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee to Telecommunications and the Internet.

Smaller cable operators &mdash like those in rural areas and some upstart companies, and the organizations that represent them like the American Cable Association &mdash also want more control in how they sell cable channels.

But don't take our word for it, see what cable and satellite operators, channels, and consumers, and public interest groups have told the FCC about giving you cable channel choice.

Who is Working On This Issue?

Consumers Union has been at the forefront leader on this issue and has testified extensively before House and Senate Committees.

The FCC has traditionally opposed a mandatory a la carte system, but FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has recently embraced the concept. He even helped write an op-ed in favor of cable a la carte that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in July 2007. Martin's advocacy of cable a la carte has drawn the ire of cable companies and big media conglomerates. 

If you want to take a step to help lower your pay-TV bill, Take Action on cable and satellite channel choice.  Then learn more about other cable issues and how increased competition from other TV providers might help. To learn what else you can to about your own cable bill, read's Consumer Tips.