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Bustin' Up Cable: The Decency Police Get It Right, For Once

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Part of growing up is learning to accept that sometimes even the yahoos can be right. Today, the yahoos in question are the FCC regulators who are trying to push an anathema idea on cable companies: giving their customers more choices.

Most cable viewers buy dozens, even hundreds of channels, even if they don’t watch most. (Studies have estimated that most people watch fewer than 20 regularly.) But media-morality activists (as well as consumer groups like Consumers Union) have long argued that people should not have to subsidize MTV, FX, or other such dens of vice, to get The Hallmark Channel. Now the FCC is about to issue a (nonbinding) report that will recommend that cable companies either offer smaller packages, such as a "family friendly" tier, or sell channels "a la carte": ABC Family for thee, Spike TV for me.

Media corporations and cable companies (like Time Warner, my corporate overlord) have howled that a la carte pricing would make individual channels more expensive. As it is, I subsidize programming that you watch and I don’t, and vice versa — sort of like the cost-sharing in an insurance pool. The more of you opt out of MTV, the more expensive Laguna Beach becomes for me. Depending how many channels you watch, they say, your cable bill could skyrocket, and smaller channels could disappear.

Would that happen? Maybe. Quite possibly. And you know what? Too freakin’ bad. In other businesses, brands compete on their merits. If you want InStyle magazine, the mailman doesn’t toss a giant bundle in your doorstep that also includes TIME and Southern Living–great as that would be for my paycheck. If you buy a Coke, you don’t also get a carton of Minute Maid.

I like a lot of shows on Fine Living and BBC America, but unless enough other people did, the money for my shows might go away, as could some small channels altogether. But being able to watch modernist home renovations on digital cable is not exactly a social entitlement. If what I’m willing to pay for my shows is not enough to keep them on the air, that stinks for me. But in a country where we still can’t get tens of millions of people health insurance, I would encourage you not to worry too much about my problem.

It galls me to agree with the decency crusaders on this one, particularly since they otherwise are not big fans of individual choice–they’re the ones trying to make sure that you can’t watch certain content in prime time because they don’t want their own families to watch it. But the best–and fairest–solution is to give me the choice to pay for my filth, and them the choice to refuse to. If paying more for Nip/Tuck is the price of getting the yahoos to leave my TV the hell alone, I’ll break out my checkbook tomorrow.