Monday, June 20, 2011

A La Carte Cable?

There have been rumblings in the cable industry for a while now that the possibility of a la carte pricing for cable television is coming. What is a la carte pricing, you ask? Currently, the cable companies sell you access to channels by bundling them together, so you pay for twenty or fifty channels even if there are only five of them you want to watch. A la carte pricing means that you'd be able to pay for non-premium channels individually, or be able to access higher "tiers" of channels without having to buy access to the ones below them in the hierarchy first. Cable companies have staunchly refused to consider these options, because they make more money with more channels, and by creating all these hoops to jump through in order to access content.

However, with the new competition from the Internet, and much prodding from the FCC, those attitudes may finally be changing. Cheaper subscription services like Netflix and Hulu have led to prognostications of mass cord-cutting (I finally did last month). The Apple Itunes and Amazon stores selling new episodes of premium series shortly after they air means that viewers now have the ability to pay for some individual shows online, bypassing the cable system entirely. Six months ago, it came out that HBO was seriously considering making themselves available a la carte to those who didn't subscribe to the higher cable tiers, because of a steep decline in subscribers. If it did, would Showtime and Starz and all the other premium channels be far behind?

Some have suggested that a la carte pricing would mean that the vast majority of current cable channels will be wiped out, but I'm not so sure. Few people watch one or two channels exclusively, and most appreciate the ability to channel surf. For fun, I tried to work out which channels I would want to keep and which I would drop if a la carte pricing became available, and it was harder than I thought. We all have those one or two channels that make us cringe every time we flip past them. In my case it's the sports networks. But once I put those aside, it got harder to pick and choose. Like many people, there are some channels that I certainly watch more than others, but nearly all of them have a show or two that sometimes catches my interest, or has the broadcast rights to a movie I wouldn't mind seeing again.

For instance, I don't watch anything on Lifetime except "Project Runway," and I don't watch anything on A&E except "Hoarders." I have no interest in any of the original programming on ABC Family or the Disney Channel, but they both have libraries of older films with a lot of titles I like. Even MSNBC is watchable every couple of years, when NBC turns over a portion of its airtime to Olympics coverage. It was odd to realize, but I kind of like having access to channels that I don't actually watch very often - but I could. That's why I don't think cable companies would be in too much trouble if they did start offering individual channels a la carte. People are used to bundling and some would probably prefer the current system if offered the choice.

On the other hand, would I trade all of those rarely watched channels in for Turner Classic Movies or BBC America? You bet I would. And would extra channels be an easier sell if I didn't have to buy twenty more unwanted channels along with them? Most definitely. I suspect my viewing habits would change if a la carte became the new norm. For one thing, I'd spend less time surfing and more time actually enjoying the television I pay for. In fact it's already happening. Ever since I swapped my basic cable for Netflix, I've been consuming more media than ever, including television. And over the past few months, I've more or less built my own little schedule of regular programming out of the shows that are available online - "The Daily Show," "Frontline," lots of network programs, and a few independent Internet content providers like "College Humor" and "Channel Awesome." The only time I really find myself channel surfing anymore is when I'm traveling and don't have my usual broadband access.

Honestly, I don't know if a la carte pricing is enough to reverse the trend now. The concept of having channels at all may soon be obsolete as individual shows gain popularity on platforms that have little to do with the networks they air on. Is this the end of cable as we know it?

Only one thing is absolutely clear: I watch too much TV.

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