As You Were

Devin Coughlin's blog.
Styles: Serious Spare

December 1, 2007

Cable a la carte

I'm having a hard time deciding whether I support the FCC's push to require cable companies to offer a la carte pricing for channels -- that is, consumers would be able to pick and pay for exactly the channels they want rather than select from a limited set of pre-selected packages.

A la carte pricing seems like a no-brainer for consumers -- the benefits would be reduced prices and a wider selection. Your mythical geek wouldn't have to pay for ESPN and the Speed Channel while the sports nut could subscribe to ESPN1-56 and The Middle School Softball Channel. Ditching the one-size-fits-all model would be especially great for people with niche interests -- anime, sci-fi, curling, etc.

But I find it useful in evaluating whether to support regulatory reform to look at the players pushing for it. One the side of increased regulation we have the FCC (or, at least, parts of it), consumer groups, and the Parent's Television Council. The PTC, as you may remember, is the group of nutjobs concerned mainly with keeping depictions of witchcraft off of your TV -- for the children, you see. Opposing the new regulation we have . . . the cable companies.

The fact that the PTC is so adamantly in favor of a la carte pricing makes me think there must be a major downside to it. And there is. The problem is that the decision-makers (that is, the people paying for the service) are not always the same as the users (the people actually watching television). This always leads to inefficiencies (see, e.g. corporate IT) and makes me think that people will get much less use out of their televisions on an a la carte plan. The PTC is obviously behind this because it allows families to protect their children from joining sex-based cults inspired by CSI; but this really means that Daddy gets to pick the channels (The Chuck Norris Channel!) leaving Little Gay Johnny without access to Queer Eye and forcing Mommy to watch ChristianHomemakerTV. Daddy's happy, but everyone else is stuck in TV hell, lowering the usefulness of TV and ultimately making cable less valuable.

So the question is whether the decreased cost and improved options made possible by a la carte pricing outweigh the decreased efficiency and the costs to society incurred by conservative parents who won't let their gay kids learn about fashion.

Ten years ago, I think the answer would have been no: television was our window on the world and putting bars and blinds on it would have a very real effect. But today we have the internet, where Little Gay Johnny can talk to other gay kids his age, and Mommy can read Orcinus and Pandagon and dream about maybe someday breaking free. So if the Parent's Television Council succeeds in locking down cable, maybe it doesn't matter. In fifteen years we'll all be getting our TV on the internet anyway. And then the Parent's Internet Council will start all over again.

Posted by coughlin at 12:27 PM