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Don't let the government take away your remote

The Baltimore Sun

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Every night around 11 o'clock my wife reluctantly relinquishes the remote control so that I can select the local newscast we will watch. The scene is familiar to millions for whom the TV remote can sometimes cause marital friction and spark a battle for the power to determine what others watch.

This week, however, Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, will attempt to decide which programs we should watch and how much TV violence is appropriate for us, making the battle for the remote all but pointless.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, Mr. Martin is to be joined by at least one other commission member, one network executive and an advocacy group representative in support of legislation that would allow cable and satellite TV subscribers to select their programs "a la carte," meaning consumers could choose the stations they want to come into their homes and reject others. This cafeteria approach might sound good at first glance, but suppose someone didn't want to see the violence in Fox TV's 24 but did wish to see the violence of NFL football? Since Fox carries both, consumers who rejected Fox because of 24 would not be able to watch NFL football.

Not only is this a bad business model in that cable and satellite TV make money by telling advertisers they can reach a certain number of homes, it also takes away the privileges and responsibilities of individuals to make these decisions.

Much of this "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you" attitude derives from the supposed negative impact such programs have on children, but census figures show that only one-third of American households have children 18 or under.

It might be worth it if other avenues were not available to parents to control what their children watch, but those avenues exist in abundance. Parents can turn off or even get rid of the TV; they can make use of the V-chip, now a part of all newer TV sets; they don't have to subscribe to cable or satellite TV; they can make use of the imperfect ratings system, or they can monitor what their children watch.

The a la carte approach is the worst of all worlds. Fox News could not have been launched in an a la carte environment - bad news for those who wish to have another perspective on the news than what they got before Fox was born. What about religious programming? Would conservative Christians, for example, wish to allow people to block all Christian programs when the opportunity to reach nonbelievers is a strong motivator for the people who produce them?

The FCC's own study shows that in an ideal a la carte world, consumers would get 20 channels but would pay the same price as today's 150 channels. Only those who don't mind buying one egg and paying for a dozen would like such a deal.

Those on the right who favor this proposed regulation had better think of the consequences. If the FCC and not the market control your entertainment choices, would a Democratic president and his (or her) appointees to the FCC feel emboldened to control the political dialogue? They surely would cite the entertainment regulations as precedent for coming after talk radio and anything else they deemed "harmful."

Don't let them take your remote, because you won't get it back.

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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