A La Carte Bill's Co-Sponsor: Cable Consumers Want Freedom of Choice (Q&A)

Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, tells THR why he joined Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, to back a bill that broadcasters and the MPAA oppose: "Forcing people to buy things they don't want to get what they do want is un-American."
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Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal is the co-sponsor of Sen. John McCain's most recent try to force cable TV and satellite distributors to offer a way to pay only for channels subscribers want to watch -- the "a la carte cable bill."

Blumenthal, a first-term Democrat, joins the veteran Republican legislator on the bill opposed by broadcasters and the Motion Picture Association of America (much more on their opposition here), and also sits on a number of Senate committees (including the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee) where members will debate, investigate and vote on the measure. It's a topic that falls squarely in the wheelhouse of Blumenthal, who spent 20 years as Attorney General of Connecticut where, he tells The Hollywood Reporter, he brought many cases involving similar themes, so the Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013, as it is officially called, "seemed very natural to me."

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"Forcing people to buy things they don't want to get what they do want is un-American and might even raise anti-trust issues," said Blumenthal, quickly adding, "I don’t mean (cable bundling) is prohibited. But it's in the tradition. It fulfills the same kind of value. By the way, I have huge respect for the people on the other side of this issue. I'm not accusing them of any illegality or unethical practice or profiteering. They have arguments I respect, but I just disagree respectfully."

The following interview has been edited.

THR: There have been studies that show offering channels one by one may actually raise costs because packages are offered at discounts. Does that matter to you?

BLUMENTHAL:  It matters tremendously. I've heard the apples analogy. You buy a bundle of apples, they're going to be less costly per apple. But the real analogy is cans of different products -- canned apples, pears, peaches, peas. If you don’t like pears, peaches and peas and all you really want is the canned corn, you're basically paying for stuff you don’t want. Even though the can of corn might be a few pennies less, you spend many dollars more on stuff you don’t want; in this case stuff you don’t watch.

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Somebody once said about a study, it’s the best study money can buy. These studies are all over the lot. They’ve been done for years, and if you pay enough you can buy a study showing whatever you want. Not that I distrust studies inherently, but they are on both sides of this issue. What I come down to, and I will be very blunt with you, what I hear from cable consumers overwhelmingly is, 'give us freedom of choice. Don’t make us pay for something we don’t want and won't watch. Why am I  paying for -- you name a channel you don’t like or five or ten or them -- just so I can watch the one I do want.' That’s overwhelmingly the sentiment of people who buy this product. So this bill just gives voice and force to that sentiment.

THR: In the press release announcing your support of Sen. McCain's bill, it cites the "must buy" provisions of the Cable Act as forcing cable systems to pay for all local channels, which raises the cost of doing business and the cost for consumers. So does that mean you want a rewrite of the Cable Act?

BLUMENTHAL: All I'm proposing and advocating is this measure that would provide more freedom of choice for these consumers. If there are suggestions for other reforms, I'd be glad to talk about them. I should also emphasize that I'd be delighted to speak to opponents at any time about what can be done to improve this proposal, how it should be modified and what the reasons for opposition are.

THR: Some point at the rising cost of sports rights as a factor driving the rising cost of cable. Is that a factor to you?

BLUMENTHAL: I'm not going to comment on specific interests of others or the higher or lower prices for specific channels or types of channels. It’s the principle that is of paramount importance.

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THR: Conventional wisdom is that the a la carte bill has very little chance of passage.

BLUMENTHAL: Realistically, given the very unfortunate gridlock in many aspects of the legislative process these days, particularly on the House of Representative's side, almost any proposal for reform faces an uphill climb.

THR: Even with bipartisan support?

BLUMENTHAL: Yes, even with bipartisan support. The combination of the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold on the Senate side -- the fact measures can only pass with a majority of Republican support in the House and certain extreme views make any new idea or proposal for reform difficult to achieve.

I'm very realistic, but I think this is an idea worth advocating and considering and airing to the larger public so there can be a healthy debate and conversation. This proposal, as you know, is linked to advances in technology, new means of delivering services and entertainment, which is changing even as we speak. So I think it deserves to be part of the larger debate. As I say, I have had a long standing interest in this area going back to my days as Attorney General, and I look forward to talking to people about it, whether they are for it or against it.

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THR: Sen. McCain has been called a "maverick," and isn't always in tune with his own party even though he ran for president. Does his involvement help or hurt chances of passing this legislation?

BLUMENTHAL: Sen. McCain is on the right side of this issue. He is an individual of extraordinary conviction and courage who speaks his mind and has respect on both sides of the aisle. He very recently has been a lynchpin in breaking the partisan paralysis in confirmation of the president's appointees. He has helped to spearhead a bipartisan reform immigration bill through an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the Senate. He's a very serious legislator. Some might regard him as a maverick because he speaks his heart and mind with great passion and conviction, but I admire him for it.

THR: Some cynics say you know this won't pass, but it sounds good to voters so it allows you to curry favor. What do you say to those cynics?

BLUMENTHAL: I would say I am going to work hard, tirelessly and relentlessly for this measure because I believe in it.