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Broadcasters, MPAA Line Up Against Proposed A La Carte Bill

Sens. Richard Blumenthal and John McCain's bill draws comment from ESPN and the MPAA, and has little chance of passage.

Senator Richard Blumenthal - P 2013
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Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal has some powerful opponents.

He and Sen. John McCain are behind another effort to force cable and satellite providers to offer a la carte packages to their programming. (Read his Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter here.)

A partial (but very well-funded, politically active and vocal) list of opponents includes virtually all broadcast networks, local TV station group owners and the Motion Picture Association of America. As a senator from Connecticut, Blumenthal has one vocal opponent to such a bill in his own backyard -- the Bristol-based ESPN, Disney/ABC's revenue and viewership powerhouse, which currently hauls in about $5.40 per month per subscriber. That's by far the highest fee for any cable, satellite or broadcast channel -- and it reportedly already has contracts that will escalate to more than $7 by 2017.

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And it's apparently personal -- Blumenthal grew interested in a la carte packages after a blackout made it impossible for him to watch a New York Giants game. One section of the bill he's co-sponsoring would ban such blackouts in cities that provided public financing of their home teams' stadiums, including the Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars.

While ESPN would not address the Blumenthal's stance, the network did provide a statement: "An a la carte system would cost consumers significantly more money for dramatically less choice as evidenced by virtually every research and academic report prepared on this topic. ESPN is hugely popular and, along with many other cable networks, provides a tremendous entertainment value."

The MPAA, which represents major movie and TV producers, said in a statement that it doesn’t believe such legislation is needed: "The marketplace is vibrant, providing audiences more choices in high quality television programming than ever before. And, with rapidly changing technologies and business models, there are more ways than ever for consumers to enjoy their favorite content and to discover new programming. Government intervention now would likely short circuit this innovation, providing consumers fewer options at higher prices."

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But Blumenthal does have some proponents in his corner. The proposed bill enjoys tepid support within the cable industry, where some see it as a Trojan horse that can help kill hated must-carry provisions of the cable act. Eliminating those could reduce or even end the high-profile retransmission consent battles (which have led to shrill advertisements and name-calling between, say, Viacom and Time Warner Cable) and even the blacking out of some TV stations on cable systems.  

A group called the American Television Alliance, financed mostly by Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and Dish, praised Sen. McCain in May, when the bill was introduced, for "recognizing the real and growing problem of outdated video regulations and for offering a creative solution today."

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has no official comment on the proposed bill. While some members, like Time Warner Cable, like the proposed legislation, others like Comcast -- which also owns NBC and Universal Studios -- oppose it, leaving cable's trade organization on the sidelines.

But it appears to be a tempest in a teapot. Observers say the measure has little chance of passage in the highly partisan Congress. There isn't even a companion bill in the House of Representatives. Besides McCain and Blumenthal, no other senator is co-sponsoring the legislation and the Obama White House has not taken a position.