A la carte Television Already a Known Entity


The FCC just reversed an earlier finding by concluding that à la carte programming, if allowed by cable and satellite providers, should result in lower costs for the consumer. Of course the lobbying groups that are backed by those two technologies disagrees entirely, which is no surprise of course.

However, I’ve noticed that not one word has been said regarding the past history of à la carte programming. I’m talking about BUD‘s (Big Ugly Dishes, you know, the 10-12 foot dishes that a few people had here and there). BUD programming was almost entirely à la carte. Furthermore, there were nowhere near the number of subscribers to programming there as there are today for cable and satellite.

Given that, I’m left to wonder why it was that à la carte programming on BUD’s was shockingly less expensive than anything you could find anywhere else. For example, back in 1994 when I had my DirecTV system installed, the cost for 5 channels of HBO was $15 a month or $180 a year. My friend Mike, who owned a BUD, by contrast, paid $75 a year for HBO and that came with 7 channels. To add Cinemax cost him an additional $18 for the year. Many single channels cost only a few dollars for the year and huge packages of a channels were available for many of the typical “cable channels”, again for the year, for less than what we pay for them in one month. Mike’s entirely yearly budget for all of his channels was less than what we pay for HBO for the year.

When you think about why BUD programming was so much less expensive (not counting the feeds that were essentially being illegally watched) one thing jumps right to mind—competition. Channels had to compete for viewers. That inevitable lowers the price for everyone. Take the Lifetime and Oxygen networks. Here are two networks vying primarily for women viewers. Most people, if given the choice, would only chose one (at most). That would clearly cause both of these networks to become extremely aggressive, not only in their pricing, but also in their programming. Why would I pay double for one over the other especially if its programming isn’t as good? Today you really have little choice. They both come as part of a package you pay for. The networks mainly have to worry about impressing the providers and only secondarily, the viewer. A la carte programming changes that dynamic entirely and we already have reliable historical evidence of that path.

Imagine what would happen with regard to competition for movie channels, news channels, cartoon channels and so on. Will we lose some channels? I would suspect we would but what channels would we lose? While I’d love to lose shopping channels, clearly the providers are paid to carry those so they’re not going anywhere. No, the channels we’d lose would be more like the 5th news channel that few people watch. The channels that would go away would be those that have little to offer most viewers, as it should be. Then again, I would expect that many programmers would offer a package of channels. Discovery would offer packages for Discovery and another for all of their family of channels, at a heavy discount. Thus, the specialty channels like, The Military Channel, would likely stay with us as part of that package. In the end, the free market would have a chance to work on this as it should. Quality will stay, fluff will vanish.

It’s time consumers push for à la carte programming. I have little doubt that our wallets will thank us later. Do you agree?

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