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Senator John McCain pushes to end the cable bundle

The Arizona senator introduces new legislation that would kill the cable bundle and repeal blackout restrictions for local sports teams using publicly funded stadiums.

John McCain wants to make it easier for consumers to buy only the TV shows they want to watch.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Arizona senator introduced legislation that would force cable operators and other TV providers to split up their so-called programming bundles and instead offer TV shows in smaller, more affordable packages and as a la carte channels. His legislation, called the Television Consumer Freedom Act, also would require sports leagues that use publicly financed stadiums to broadcast home games within their local markets. Now many home games are blacked out in an effort to encourage fans to go to the stadium.

McCain called this practice "unconscionable" considering that taxpayers are the ones paying for these stadiums to be built.

He also sent a warning to TV broadcasters that have threatened to move some of their broadcasting behind a cable paywall. He said that if broadcasters did that they would risk access to the airwaves that the government allows these broadcasters to use for free.

"If broadcasters who are using the public airwaves in return for meeting certain public interest obligations are going to deviate from those obligations, it is my view that we should consider if that is the most efficient use of our country's spectrum," McCain said during his introduction of the bill.

Some broadcasters have threatened to make their most popular TV shows and programs available only to subscription customers if they are unable to stop Internet TV startup Aereo from "stealing" their content. Aereo uses its antenna to rebroadcast TV over the Internet so that people can watch live television on their smartphones, tablets, PCs, and TVs without cable or access to a regular TV broadcast signal. Several broadcasters, including Fox and CBS, which owns CNET, are suing Aereo.

Pay for what you watch

McCain's main beef with paid TV providers, sports leagues, and broadcasters that threaten to make their popular content available only to a paid audience is that consumers are being forced to pay more for TV content than they should be paying.

When it comes to the bundles, McCain argues that cable companies and other TV providers force consumers to pay for a bigger bundle of channels than they actually want. So instead of only getting the one or two channels they want to watch, they must pay for 10, 20, or even 50 channels that they don't watch. As a result, consumers are paying more per month for content they never watch.

"This is unfair and wrong -- especially when you consider how the regulatory deck is stacked in favor of industry and against the American consumer," McCain said.

The cable industry has for years fought against offering a la carte pricing for TV shows or even channels. And in a statement following the introduction of McCain's bill, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said it would not benefit anyone, even consumers, to move to such a model.

"As countless studies have demonstrated, subscription bundles offer a wider array of viewing options, increased programming diversity, and better value than per-channel options," the group said in a statement.

Without the bundles, the NCTA argues, content providers would not be able to afford to develop programming that might only appeal to a niche market. And without that programming, everyone suffers because there will be less diversity.

But it's unclear whether the NCTA's claims truly hold water now as many over-the-top Internet TV providers begin offering some of their own programming. For instance, Netflix is pouring millions of dollars into developing its own content, as are other sites like Even, which is owned by several TV broadcasters, has been developing original content. Others are getting into the act too, including Google's YouTube and AOL, which owns several Web properties.

The idea is that consumers may be attracted to these services and "channels" because they offer programming they want to see. Some of these providers, like Amazon, are allowing consumers to pay per episode for original content as well as popular programming from some broadcasters and cable channels.

As a result, there's a question whether legislation is really needed to push the industry in this direction. Perhaps the Internet and the market itself are already moving in this direction. What's more, this is not the first time that McCain has introduced a bill to force paid TV providers to offer a la carte programming. McCain pushed for a similar bill in 2006, but the legislation never made it out of the Senate Commerce Committee.