3.22.18: a rebel alliance of quality content
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cable a la carte
the solution to the problem of cable television
by erik lars myers (@TopFermented)

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

Your local cable company has a Standard Cable Package. It doesn't include a DVR. Nor does it include a three-pronged, duo-tone, glow-in-the-dark, active-feedback remote control that, with proper programming, can run your televison, VCR, DVD player, stereo, toaster and dog.

It has 14 basic channels -- those magical network channels that still float through the air to be picked up by those archaic people with antennas and rabbit-ears (like me): CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, WB, maybe UPN, PAX, PBS, and some other local programming. It also includes approximately 50 other channels including, but not limited to USA Network, TNT, A&E, TBS, Oxygen, Lifetime, The Lifetime Movie Network, National Geographic, The Discovery Channel, The Discovery Health Channel, CNBC, CNN, FOXNews, Headline News, MSNBC, ESPN, ESPN-2, ESPN Classic, The Hallmark Channel, The Travel Channel, The Disney Channel, The History Channel, The Channel Channel, The Weather Channel, the Inspirational Network, The Outdoor Life Network, FitTV, SoapNet, TV Land, and Spike TV, among MANY others. It all costs $39.95/month (for the first 6 months, $44.95/month thereafter, price does not include taxes, installation, or other fees; firstborn child due at signing.) Prices and channel lineups may differ depending on your location and cable provider, but it's all basically the same.

If you're an avid television watcher you watch 6-8 of these channels on a regular basis and might flip by another 8 or 10 of them for special occasions, like when you're.. no.. I just can't think of a reason to watch the Hallmark Channel. So all-in-all, you're paying $540/year minimum (if you haven't shelled out for a more expensive package for another $35/month -- $420/year -- because you want HBO) for 10 or 20 channels tops, and all those other channels are just sitting there taking up time on your casual surf through the channels -- and prices aren't going down anytime soon. In fact, estimates are that cable rates increase at roughly twice the rate of inflation every year.

What if, instead, you could choose exactly which channels you wanted to receive -- cable a la carte?

It might seem trivial and nitpicky, but it's really the solution to a lot of problems. The first of which you might have seen if you had lightning-quick reflexes, a TiVo, or an internet connection of any type two Superbowl's ago. That's right: Janet Jackson's right tit.

To be more specific, I'm talking about breasts in general. The fact of the matter is, some people don't want boobies on their TV. It's fair. Who am I to judge? (You're WRONG!) I'd rather have boobies than insipid sitcoms or daytime talk shows, but that is exactly what this is about.

The second of which is what I referred to above: Cable is getting damn expensive, and the prices aren't getting lower anytime soon. If you want actual quality programming on your television (interspersed between the other 700 channels you'll be getting), be prepared to spend well over $1200/year on cable. That's a whole lot of beer. That's minor surgery. That's car insurance. That's a new HDTV.

Here's the basic premise of cable a la carte: You don't want The Catholic Channel? Don't buy it! You don't want your kids watching MTV2 because you think teen angst is the root of all evil? Don't subscribe! Tired of the liberal media and all their blabbity anti-American claptrap? FOXNews is yours for the taking, and you don't even have to bother flipping by anything else to get there.

The cable companies have been fighting this idea tooth and nail saying that a la carte programming would actually hurt consumers. They might have a point.

At the request of congress last summer the FCC did a study last summer to find out just how feasable cable a la carte is. What they found out is this: The average household watches 17 channels. Using a la carte programming the average household cable bill would increase from 14% to 30% and that to see a savings in cost a household would need to subscribe to 9 channels or less.

Doesn't quite seem like the math works out, does it? Let's see, I get 80 channels for $40.00/month -- that's $0.50/channel, so for 17 channels that should be $8.50/month (plus taxes, fees, and firstborn child), right?

Wrong. You get 80 channels for $40.00/month because of the magic of bundling. Take, for example, the Travel Channel: How often do you sit down at night, flip to the Travel Channel and watch it for a few hours before flipping over to Lost? Right! Never! Neither do the people who advertise on the Travel Channel... if in fact people advertise on the Travel Channel at all. The Travel Channel exists wholly and entirely because it will come bundled with The Discovery Channel and its 14 spinoffs. When people buy the right to broadcast the Discovery Channel, they're getting The Travel Channel right along with it.

That is why cable a la carte is not going to work. Because when you buy the right to watch The Discovery Channel at home, you are inadvertantly going to have to pay for the Travel Channel whether you want it or no. If you want Comedy Central, you're paying for MTV, Nickelodeon, and the Cartoon Network (and a suite of others owned by Viacom) because if the fees aren't structured that way then the specialty channels go out of business, because if you go strictly by number of subscribers, the 350 people country-wide that would actually want to subscribe to the Soap Network would not support its existence.

Crazy - a supply-and-demand economic system in the cable industry? Unheard of! You mean that cable networks that suck might actually cease to exist? Scandalous!

It's about goddamn time, I'd say.

As of Nov. 30, 2005, the FCC, in response to Conservative pressure (see reason #1), has announced that it is open to a la carte programming. It is sure, however, to be a fight full of hyperbole and conjecture.

The way I see it, there are three possible ways of making cable a la carte a reality.

- Stop bundling. Charge a set amount per channel so that successful channels will prosper and craptastic ones will crumble. Call it an idea based on the U.S. Small Business Economy.

- Bundle, but give everybody everything. Then, in the handy-dandy DVR-ish box purchsed by the consumer, include software that allows the consumer to pare down the channels they receive, whilst paring down their cost the same time. Assuming that Americans in general believe that more is better, most people will pay for everything, anyway.

- Tear down cable structuring as it exists and start from scratch. It takes one enterprising company to make this work. With Netflix and TiVo teamed up, it wouldn't surprise me if it started there.


Writer, beer drinker, brewer. Not necessarily in the order. For more, check Top Fermented and Mystery Brewing Company.

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topic: television
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sandra thompson
12.19.05 @ 9:08a

We probably watch fewer than nine channels most of the time, but one of them is HBO. We have a package which includes our cable internet connection and our earthlink ISP and we have those high falutin' cable boxes which include DVR, so we can watch one thing and record another. The way programming is done it's a rare night I'm not recording something and watching another. We're spending a small fortune for all this, but at least we split it three ways. Sigh. One of my grandgeeks works as an editor at the Golf Channel, which is owned by Comcast, so all this bundling is probably a good thing for us. One of the advantages of the DVR set-up is you can fast forward through the commercials when you're watching something you've recorded. Since I sometimes can't stay awake for The Daily Show and the Colbert Repor(t) that comes in handy. I've also noticed that the older I get the more I watch the Commedy Channel. I hope that's a good thing.

jael mchenry
12.19.05 @ 3:36p

I watch rather a lot of HBO. But TiVo is actually helping me discover channels I never knew I had time for. Wonderfalls reruns on Logo, for example. So I like having these channels that I wouldn't have picked by the description.

Is there really "The Channel Channel?"

erik myers
12.19.05 @ 3:57p

No. I just threw that in to see who was reading. :)

mike julianelle
12.19.05 @ 4:51p

I caught the joke but thought it might have been a play on that channel that runs the schedule grid.

russ carr
12.19.05 @ 4:58p

The way I see it, there are three possible ways of making cable a la carte a reality.

You left out 'downloading the shows I want to see to my computer/TiVo via the Internet'.


brian anderson
12.19.05 @ 5:18p

The schedule grid is totally going to be the Channel Channel for me from now on.

joe procopio
12.19.05 @ 10:17p

Be careful what you wish for. If you unbundle, you stop subsidizing some brilliant channels, like Cartoon Network (Adult Swim) or VH1 Classic, which don't make enough in ad revenue to sustain themselves.

People go apeshit when a television show that's well written and critically acclaimed gets the axe because it can't get ratings. Well, they're not doing it to spite you, they're doing it because it can't make enough money to stay on the air. Thus, American Idol subsidizes Arrested Development. Or at least it did.

If you go a la carte, that will happen with entire channels.

erik myers
12.20.05 @ 8:55a

You left out 'downloading the shows I want to see to my computer/TiVo via the Internet'.

Snark. I put it in there, it's just not labeled that way. With Netflix and TiVo together? EVERYTHING will be on-demand, for download, and you can put it anywhere you want.

Joe - I'm with ya. But don't you think it's a problem with the way the industry is structured? There's got to be a way in which well-written, critically acclaimed shows can support themselves.

russ carr
12.20.05 @ 9:33a

Have a bake sale?

dave lentell
12.20.05 @ 11:49a

What of channels that don't run commercials? How would a la carte programming affect them?

My 4 year old loves Noggin. Now I'm not the type of parent who just plops his kid in front of the TV four hours a day every day, but when I do sit him in front of it - usually on the weekend mornings - it's Noggin that he watches. It's highly educational.. it literally is Pre-School on Television and I can truthfully say, he's learned a lot by watching it.

The thing I like most about Noggin? (besides the educational benefits)? NO COMMERCIALS. No one telling my son what toy he needs, or what cereal to eat. So how does this channel make it's money? I suspect bundling has something to do with.

But, as I think about it, perhaps, a channel like this could surive and thrive in a la carte. I pay $69 a month for my Dish Package. I'd likely pay $20 a month just to keep my babysitter, er, Noggin. And I'm guessing a lot of other parents would too.

So kindly disregard this post. As long as I get the History Channel, the Military Channel and SciFi - in addition to Noggin - I'd be happy with a la carte. But If I had to pay $69 just for those four channels, then I might as well just stick with the Dish 180 package. Because I occassionally watch the Travel Channel. (They carry the World Poker Tour don't they?) And the Hallmark Channel occassionaly keeps my wife from bugging me. So it's not all bad.

tracey kelley
12.20.05 @ 3:56p

I'm tellin'! I'm tellin' her you said that!

Food Network and the Travel Channel - gotta love 'em. But oh, what I wouldn't do for a la carte, so I could remove over all the Spanish stations (since I don't speak the language, it's moot) and the damn shopping channels.

brian anderson
12.20.05 @ 4:30p

In some ways, Univision is much better if you *don't* speak Spanish.

joe procopio
12.21.05 @ 5:10p

You're all listing the biggest offenders, so to speak.

rebecca weaver
1.2.06 @ 12:39p

In defense of the Hallmark Channel, Erik, they do run MASH episodes while I'm making supper and waiting for the national news to start. :)

erik myers
5.15.06 @ 1:48p

The Boston Globe just caught up.


mike julianelle
5.15.06 @ 3:28p

Almost posted that for you myself.

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