April 27, 2006

Only Pay for Channels You Plan to Watch?

Posted by Eric Jaffa
Monday December 05th 2005, 1:48 pm
Filed under: Cable/Satellite, TV

Marguerite Reardon of CNET covers “A la carte TV” today. This refers to letting consumers choose individual cable channels to pay for. Currently, most consumers get a bundle of “basic cable channels” like MTV and may subscribe to “premium channels” like HBO on top of that.

Consumers Union agrees with conservative Brent Bozell in supporting a la carte. A couple of cable companies support the idea as well:

“People are not satisfied with what cable companies are offering them today,” Kenneth DeGraff, a policy advocate at Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. “Families are being told they have to subsidize content they find offensive. And the cable companies keep raising rates. They may throw in a few more channels, but no one ever asks consumers which channels they want.”

The idea of allowing consumers to pick and choose which channels they want to subscribe to is nothing new. Cablevision, a cable operator in the Northeast, has been advocating the change for years. And just this week, the firm reiterated its support of the a la carte option for customers.

“We do not believe in the long term that selling programming a la carte will be detrimental to either programmers or cable operators,” Charles F. Dolan, chairman of Cablevision’s board of directors, said in a statement. “On the contrary, our experience indicates a la carte will result in a more affordable service for all with more programming options.”

AT&T, formerly SBC Communications, has also thrown its support behind the a la carte option. The company is currently upgrading its broadband network and deploying more fiber optics to be able to offer a paid TV service.

Why would a consumer group support a la carte?

“When cable providers add more channels, it doesn’t change how much TV people watch,” said Consumers Union advocate (Kenneth) DeGraff. “No one watches a lot of those extra channels. They just go into the ether. If a channel deserves to exist, people will pay for it, and if it’s too expensive, they won’t.”

DeGraff added that he isn’t advocating that cable companies and content providers get rid of bundles entirely. “Bundles aren’t bad,” he said. “But they only work when people can opt out of the bundle. We just think consumers should have more choices.”

Personally, I have mixed feelings about a la carte.

On the one hand, if Cablevision started operating in Minnesota, I’d subscribe for their a la carte. (Assuming that would mean a much smaller cable bill in which I pay for only my favorite channels.)

On the other hand, the effect on society of viewers seeing fewer channels, and therefore fewer points-of-view, might be negative.

10 Comments so far

It’s also important to note that the facts show that cable, currently, does not reflect diverse points of view. To get your channel on cable, programmers must give up substantial ownership to big broadcasting conglomerates (Viacom, NewsCorp, NBC/Universal) or cable/satellite companies (Comcast, TimeWarner, NewsCorp). The biggest independent channel, unaffiliated with big conglomerate, is the Weather Channel. Clearly, independent voices like ColoursTV (which exists on satellite thanks to public-interest regulations) or Quincy Jones’s New Urban Entertainment cannot get their programming onto cable. I’d be happy to speak with anyone about this issue. No one can predict with certainty the affects of ALC on Comcast-and-NewsCorp-owned TVOne or Viacom-owned BET. We can say with certainty that many cable consumers are dissatisfied with the lack of independent options and choices on cable.

Comment by Kenneth DeGraff 12.05.05 @ 2:05 pm

I think that people who WANT a la carte packages should have access to them.

As for me, I’ll stick with my package deal, and I’ll tell you why.

The FCC recently released research stating that the average cable viewer watches 17 channels regularly. I strolled to my TV to count the number of channels I frequent.

I found five that I watch regularly — say, two to three times a week.

I found 16 that I watch very occasionally, either because of a specific program I want to watch or because I’m in the mood for crap. (I didn’t count broadcast or premium channels, both of which I watch more often than basic cable.)

For people like me, a la carte programming would basically amount to pay-per-view. My budget wouldn’t allow me to pay an extra subscription fee for a channel that I might watch twice a month.

For me, the limited options would far outweigh the chance to rid my home of Pat Robertson, Bill O’Reilly, and Lifetime’s woman-in-crisis movies.

The best option, still and always, is changing the channel.

Comment by Amanda Toering 12.05.05 @ 2:21 pm

Today a teenager who hears at his church that gays are hell-bound can probably find tolerance on MTV. But under a la carte, his parents may not subscribe to MTV. Maybe just Fox News and ESPN.

Ideally, there would be more diverse ownership of cable channels. But a la carte would mean that viewers are exposed to less diverse viewpoints than now.

Comment by Eric Jaffa 12.05.05 @ 2:25 pm

Cable today does not have the widespread diversity of voices and viewpoints that it ought to have or that the law requires. Nearly all cable networks are owned by only a few companies — broadcast conglomerates and the cable operators. It may be many voices, but they are spoken by only a few ventriloquists. All those voices do not translate to widely diverse viewpoints. Just ask Current TV, one of all our favorites and a truly different viewpoint, how easy it is to break into this closed club.

For more on this, take a look at our report, “Cable’s ‘Level Playing Field’: Not Level. No Field.” It’s on Creative Voices’ website, www.creativevoices.us.

Bottom line: we’re very doubtful that a la carte will harm the insufficient diversity of viewpoints on cable today and may very well help.

Best, Jon Rintels
Executive Director
Center for Creative Voices in Media

Comment by Jon Rintels 12.06.05 @ 8:22 am

Thanks for your educated perspective, Jon.

Comment by Amanda Toering 12.06.05 @ 11:33 am

For most people the issue of a la carte pricing has less to do with the ability to censor what comes into their homes than it does with not having to pay for channels they never watch but which are forced onto them by cable companies. In a lot of cases those are sports or music channels, but everyone has channels that they don’t watch and can’t imagine anyone watching, and it doesn’t always have to do with the desire to “protect” their families from unsuitable images. If a la carte pricing were to offer people the networks they want or the ability to custom design their own packages, a lot of people would be willng to pay a greater per channel price if it meant getting what they wanted and having a lower cable bill in the bargain.

Comment by Brent McKee 12.06.05 @ 12:57 pm

Jon Rintels - I agree that there isn’t enough diversity on cable. But if fundmentalist Christian homes which have MTV get rid of MTV via a la carte, the kids will be exposed to even fewer voices.

How could a la carte HELP the diversity of voices on cable?

Comment by Eric Jaffa 12.06.05 @ 2:40 pm

Not enough diversity? How much more diverse can you get than cable and satailite programming in the US? There are religious channels, Gay/Lesbian, Animal, Womens, Educational, Health, Childrens, Family, Spanish, African American. I get Greek, Italian, French, and Asian shows as well.

As for MTV, I’m no fundamentalist but it would be the first to go in my house if I could pick a la carte. I find it meanspirited and often degrating, especially to women.

Comment by Gary Dean 12.06.05 @ 3:16 pm


I think you comment is pretty lame, “at his church that gays are hell-bound”. So are you saying ALL churches preach that message? You preach about being “tolerant” but yet you are not tolerant of other peoples beliefs. I always find that entertaining…

Comment by wally 12.06.05 @ 3:18 pm


That IS what the Christian church teaches. I used to hear it every sunday and 5 days a week when I was in CathoLic school. To the Christians, homosexuality is a sin and they all will burn in hell. Also, the Christians believe that homosexuals’ rights don’t matter, which is a complete contradiction to the beliefs of country they say they are trying to “save”.

Been on both sides, Wally. The Christians are sometimes very very scary people. They believe everyone that doesn’t believe what they believe should be silenced.

I was fortunate enough to escape.

Comment by Mitch 12.07.05 @ 10:49 am

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