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Scott D. Pierce: McCain's bill will kill TV channels you love

Published June 7, 2013 3:27 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants you to be able to choose which cable channels you pay for — which sounds like a great idea.

If you don't watch sports, why should you pay for ESPN? If you're a right-winger, why should you pay for MSNBC? If you don't have kids, why should you pay for Nickelodeon?

As with so many things, however, there will be unintended consequences if the bill McCain has introduced becomes law. I guarantee that one or more cable channels you watch will disappear and shows you adore will be canceled.

What McCain objects to is bundling. Cable programmers package lesser-known channels with their most popular channels and tell cable/satellite systems they have to buy the former to get the latter. The cost is passed along to the consumer.

Disney "forces" cable operators to buy ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPNU, the Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, ABC Family Channel and so on.

Viacom has a slew of channels, including BET, CMT, Comedy Central, Logo, MTV, Nickelodeon, Spike, TV Land, VH1 and more. Nobody watches them all, but some of you have kids who love Nick Jr., which would struggle to survive if it were offered à la carte.

If you love the programming on BBC America or the Cooking, History and Travel Channels, be worried.

And be worried about the Pac-12 Network.

If you watch shows such as "Mad Men" or "The Walking Dead," be worried. AMC is currently in 97 million homes, and paid for every month by each of those homes. "Mad Men" draws 3 million to 4 million viewers who, by themselves, couldn't keep the show or the channel going.

Some parent groups have been calling for mandatory à la carte for years, oblivious to the collateral damage. And there will be collateral damage.

None of this is worth worrying about just yet. McCain's bill only applies if a cable operator uses the so-called "compulsory license" to guarantee it access to a local broadcast station's signal.

If so, it would have to offer that station and any others that have the same owners to its customers à la carte.

Also, word out of Washington is that this bill is not exactly at the front of the line to be passed or signed into law.

There's a certain justice in only paying for what you watch. But this bill seems more appropriate for 2000 than 2013. Consumers are no longer at the mercy of a single cable company — there are satellite and online competitors.

And it's not as simple as McCain and his allies would have us believe. If à la carte comes, shows and entire channels will go. Guaranteed.

Including shows and channels you will miss.

Scott D. Pierce's covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.