Cable Firms Prefer One
Choice Ė Theirs
Customers faced with channels for every
interest except for those who want to pay a la carte.
By Dan Gainor
The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow
Feb. 15, 2006
One of the most obvious dividing lines between old and young is the
ability to recall free television. To anyone who has grown up in an
era of cable and satellite TV, the concept of a handful of channels
delivered free to your home is absurd.
Americans went from a couple of channels in each market to a lineup
only the most veteran couch potato can track. In 1992, Bruce
Springsteen released the song ď57 Channels (And Nothiní On)Ē and now
we can look at that title and think it quaint.
Limited options gave way to unlimited choice Ė or so it seemed. My
Comcast cable has channels for every interest Ė golf, travel,
NASCAR, shopping and religion. Even without the extra pay channels,
that number tops 100.
We pay for all of it.
Thatís right. Whether you watch ESPN, Oxygen or Logo (the gay
channel), you pay for it. The only other option you have is no TV at
all. Roughly 72 million homes are plugged into cable and another 26
million have satellite. That means the vast majority of the 112
million U.S. households get TV one of those two ways.
Some choice. The delivery methods vary, but the content is
essentially the same. Cable and satellite pile on channel after
channel that you wonít ever use. According to the Federal
Communications Commission, cable watchers only bother with 17 of the
channels that they fork over big bucks to see. Thatís like trying to
buy a burger at McDonaldís and having to pay for five different
combo meals just to eat.
The cable companies like it that way, only now they are threatened
by new competitors, new technologies and a word associated with an
entirely different political battle Ė choice.
That one word scares the cable companies most of all. They make
money through ads and by selling packages of channels when all we
really desire is one channel out of the pack. We buy because we have
It doesnít have to be that way.
Cable choice would give us the option to pay only for channels we
want, but it wouldnít be easy. Critics are right in saying choice
would create technological issues and customer service headaches.
Those arenít good enough reasons to avoid responding to market
demands. Cable companies have even created ďfamily-friendlyĒ
packages so they can pretend to offer what people want. Theyíre
another version of the same problem.
A new FCC report argued that consumers could save as much as 13
percent if they could pick and choose which channels they wanted Ė a
la carte. Too bad that will probably fall on deaf ears. While
Congress is willing to hold hearings on the issue to score political
points with concerned citizens, thereís little chance that august
body will get off its august butt and do anything unless consumers
make it happen. Cable company funds help grease the wheels of the
political process. Thatís their right, but itís not right that
Congress ignores the rest of us.
This isnít an unfair assault on a business or discussion of some
crazy government attempt to regulate industry. Cable already is
regulated by 30,000 local cable franchise authorities. Cable TV
isnít a free market issue at all; itís a game of monopoly Ė one that
consumers have been losing for decades. Now that it looks like weíve
figured out the rules, the cable companies are unhappy.
The National Cable & Telecommunication Association fears any
government action and said: ďMandating a la carte distribution of
cable networks will reduce the availability and diversity of
programming for consumers.Ē
So what? I could lose 20 channels tomorrow and not even notice.
Researching this topic, I found channels I didnít even know I had.
My cable box has 1,000 slots and Comcast wonít be happy until every
one is filled with something that I am supposed to pay for.
The cable firms claim that shoppers in the marketplace should
ďdictate cable programming and marketing decisions.Ē They should.
The marketplace clearly wants choice, only customers donít have that
option. The cable companies also claim that consumers would ďwind up
paying much higher prices to receive the same level of service they
get today.Ē Of course, but only about 20 people in the entire United
States want or need that many channels. The rest of us, according to
the FCC, would get a chance to save.
FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin was quoted in the February 10 New York
Times saying ďIncreasingly, consumers are saying that they don't
want to pay $10 more for 10 more channels.Ē Itís scary when even
government understands something and industry doesnít get it.
Dan Gainor is a career journalist and The Boone Pickens Free Market
Fellow. He is also director of the Media Research Centerís Free
Market Project www.freemarketproject.org.