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.