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Cable subscribers sue for 'a la carte' TV options

New lawsuit wants a court to order that cable, satellite and media companies allow subscribers to pick channels individually--an idea they have fiercely resisted in the past.

To all you cable and satellite subscribers who gripe about writing checks each month for the privilege of receiving dozens of channels you never watch, take note.

TV and popcorn

A new lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Los Angeles charges that every major cable and satellite provider--and the entertainment conglomerates that feed them content--form a cartel that deprives consumers of choice and forces them to pay "inflated" prices for services that don't correspond to their desires.

The suit, brought on behalf of cable subscribers in several states, calls for unspecified damages and for a court to decree that consumers can buy channels individually, the Associated Press reported.

The companies being targeted by the suit are NBC Universal, Viacom, Walt Disney, Fox Entertainment Group, Time Warner, Comcast, Cox Communications, DirecTV, Echostar Satellite, Charter Communications and Cablevision Systems, according to the AP.

Attorney Maxwell Blecher told the AP that he has asked for the suit to be certified as a class action. If that happens, he indicated as many as 80 million cable and satellite TV subscribers would be eligible to sign on as parties to the suit.

The lawsuit has the potential to reinvigorate the ongoing debate over whether a government-mandated "a la carte" regime is necessary. As recently as last month, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin reaffirmed his long-standing support for a law requiring that pricing model.

Earlier this year, members of Congress introduced a bill--also endorsed by Martin--that offers a sort of in-between a la carte proposal, designed primarily to target complaints from groups like the Parents Television Council about family unfriendly content on cable and satellite stations.

The cable industry, however, has a long list of reasons why it believes a la carte isn't a wise idea: chief among them that such a system would actually raise costs for consumers. They contend that such an arrangement would not only pile on administrative costs associated with customizing consumers' packages, but it may also require leasing special set-top boxes for each TV. They also claim an a la carte pricing model would cause a rise in overall subscription prices and lessen the diversity of programming they're able to offer. In a nutshell, that's because of the special arrangements they work out with advertisers.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, whose membership includes some but not all of the companies named in the suit, declined to comment on the litigation. But NCTA spokesman Rob Stoddard told CNET on Friday that the industry's view on a la carte hasn't changed.