Call Me Ishmael

In Herman Melville’s novel, Captain Ahab’s obsession is with Moby Dick.  In the morality play that’s been running for years at the FCC, Chairman Kevin Martin’s obsession is with “a la carte” for cable TV.   Missing from this analogy is a communications lawyer as the novel’s Elijah — "ye shall smell land where there is no land” — perhaps because so few of them are into allegory and none say “ye,” but I digress.

The latest chapter in this struggle between good and evil took place last Thursday when, at the point of a gun, 13 cable companies provided the FCC with information, I blanch to say, about their shifting of channels to digital tiers.  Did I just say digital tiers?  Yes I did, and who wouldn’t want to investigate something like that?

For a matter of such gravity, however, it does seem, as the NCTA argued, a wee bit prejudicial and a skosh abrupt for the FCC to have sent its request from the Enforcement Bureau, and to demand the data in 14 days.  Not eager to be fined, all of the companies did in fact respond by the deadline, but it remains to be seen if the FCC will accept their responses as adequate.

This, because according to press accounts, at least some of the respondents were chary about parting with confidential information relating to their deals with program suppliers, and gobsmacked by the sheer volume of the material requested.  Comcast, for instance, estimated it would take 1,500 man hours just to compile the data for 2008.

Whether the agency accepts the companies’ reports or not, however, it’s clear that this is one fishing expedition that’s not going to end here.  Aided and abetted by such as Commissioner Copps, Kevin Martin is hell-bent, you’ll pardon the expression, on saving consumers from fleeting expletives on broadcasting, and all manner of indecent programming on cable TV, and his solution for the latter is a la carte pricing.

So, as with the captain of the Pequod, the order from the captain of the FCC is sure to remain, for at least a little while longer, “steady as she goes."