Is the Cable Bundle Actually a Joy?

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With bundled pay TV packages, you pay for 60 or 100 or 1,000 channels, even if you really only watch 8. I, for one, would certainly be interested in the option to pay for channels a la carte. I mean, I’m annoyed that QVC appears as I click around looking for something to watch, and the thought that even 1¢ of my bill might go to such a channel drives me bonkers. But would an a la carte model actually lower anyone’s monthly bills?

The New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki says it’s pretty unlikely:

… consumer advocates have been pushing for a system of so-called “à la carte” programming, expecting that this would drive down prices for consumers.

In fact, it probably wouldn’t. The simple argument for unbundling is: “If I pay sixty dollars for a hundred channels, I’d pay a fraction of that for sixteen channels.” But that’s not how à-la-carte pricing would work. Instead, the prices for individual channels would soar, and the providers, who wouldn’t be facing any more competition than before, would tweak prices, perhaps on a customer-by-customer basis, to maintain their revenue. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Bravo would suddenly cost fifteen dollars a month, but there’s little evidence to suggest that à-la-carte packages would be generally cheaper than the current bundles. One recent paper on the subject, in fact, estimated the best-case gain to consumers at thirty-five cents a month.

35¢? Seriously? This makes no sense to me. I’m not sure what the “recent paper” being referred to is, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the research was paid for by Time Warner or Comcast.

Surely, if people could see how much each channel was costing them and opt in only for the ones worth the money, there would be plenty of channels out of luck, and plenty of consumers paying a lot less than the standard bundle running $60 or $90 or whatever a month. It would be nice to have more control over the issue, rather than being stuck with a product that you only want 25% of. And if the all-inclusive bundle really is the best bang for my buck, so be it. Just let me be the one to decide.

On the other hand, right now the typical consumer only has to deal with one pay TV provider. If you think dealing with your cable company is a pain, imagine what it could be like if you had to negotiate and complain every time any one of your channels increased its monthly charges or changed its rules. Could be a nightmare, though of course it wouldn’t and shouldn’t have to be.

For now, a la carte TV is possible not via any cable or satellite provider, but from cutting the cable and going out on your own for programming on the Internet and other services, as a recent how-to post at PBS describes.