In general, a cable television operator has the right to select the channels and services that are available on its cable system, and has broad discretion in choosing how those channels will be packaged and marketed to its subscribers. Cable operators usually select channels that are likely to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers.
Cable companies generally are required to offer a basic service tier that companies typically require all subscribers to purchase before subscribing to additional video programming. The basic service tier requirement includes, at a minimum, the local broadcast television stations and the public, educational and governmental (PEG) access channels that the operator may be required to offer pursuant to an agreement with the local government. After complying with these minimum requirements, the cable operator may offer additional programming as part of the basic service tier.
With the exception of broadcast channels that elect “must carry” status and PEG channels, all other programming on the cable system is based on terms negotiated between the cable operator and the entity that owns the channel or programming service. Terms may include whether the channel or service will be offered in a package with other programming or whether the channel or service will be offered on a per-channel or pay-per-view basis, as well as the cost of carriage.
Per-Channel (“A La Carte”) and Pay-Per-View Programming
Per-channel, or “à la carte”, programming means a channel is offered on an individual per-channel basis rather than as part of a package or tier of programming. Cable television operators are not required to offer channels on an à la carte or individual basis. However, cable operators are free to offer channels other than those required to be on the basic tier on an à la carte basis. For example, premium movie services are often offered on an individual basis rather than as part of a package.
“Pay-per-view” means there is a separate charge for each program or event. For example, a separate charge may be incurred for each movie or sports event the viewer chooses.
Cable operators, as well as other entities that offer video programming services to subscribers (such as satellite television providers), continue to have broad discretion to determine if services are offered on a per-channel or pay-per-view basis, and on how programming will be packaged and marketed to consumers.
Tier Buy-Through Prohibition
A cable company cannot require a cable subscriber to purchase anything except the basic tier in order to have access to pay-per-view programming or channels offered on an à la carte basis. For example, if a cable company offers both a basic and expanded basic tier, a subscriber cannot be required to purchase the expanded basic tier in order to access pay-per-view programs. In addition, the tier buy-through provision prohibits a cable operator from discriminating between consumers who subscribe to only the basic tier and other subscribers with regard to the rates charged on a per-channel or per-event basis. The tier buy-through prohibition does not apply if the cable operator is subject to “effective competition.”
Some “per-channel” services, like HBO, Showtime and other premium movie services, may be offered on a “multiplex” basis, where multiple sub-channels of programming are available. The FCC has decided that multiplex services are to be treated as a per-channel service. A consumer is not required, therefore, to purchase any intervening tier or tiers of programming in order to subscribe to multiplex service.
Complaints or Questions Concerning Cable Programming
If you have a complaint or question concerning programming services or channels, contact your cable company. In many cases, the customer service representatives at your cable company will be able to help you. The telephone number for your cable company can be found on your cable bill. If you are not satisfied with the response you receive from the cable company, you may contact your local franchise authority.
For More Information
For information about other communications issues, visit the FCC’s Consumer website , or contact the FCC’s Consumer Center by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) voice or 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322) TTY; faxing 1-866-418-0232; or writing to:
Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554
Choosing Cable Channels Guide  (pdf)