'A La Carte' Cable Is More Government, Less Choice

As parents become increasingly concerned about what their children might see on television, some in Washington are proposing a “cure” that would be worse than the disease.  Under the banner of conservatism, some proponents of a per-channel (or “a la carte”) pricing scheme claim that doing away with cable’s current bundling model will clean up cable.  Ironically, such a mandate would greatly damage educational, family-oriented and religious programming.

Currently, cable and satellite operators have enough channels and channel surfers to subsidize high-quality, wholesome content that doesn’t draw enough advertising or subscription revenue on its own to survive.  While some a la carte proponents entice conservative-minded subscribers with the promise of no longer subsidizing such channels as MTV and VH1, in fact it is these channels with a wide base of viewers that subsidize family programming with a smaller pool of viewers.

This practice of bundling diverse, specialized and alternative content with popular entertainment has engendered an explosion of educational programming and donor-funded religious broadcasts which can now reach 90 million homes.  With a la carte, these niche programmers aren’t likely to survive, because many of them depend on channel surfing to attract new viewers.

The real irony is that some of a la carte’s most vocal supporters sound the clarion call of family values, when if they had their way, the selection of family-friendly programming would be greatly reduced.  Religious broadcasts in particular are highly dependent on channel surfing, since its most important audience is comprised not of regular viewers, but viewers who stumble onto their programming in a time of difficulty – an impossible scenario under a la carte’s pre-selection mandate.

While some a la carte proponents imply that their only opposition is the cable industry and liberal Hollywood, Jerry Falwell opposes a la carte pricing because it “threatens to purge Christian broadcasts from the vast majority of U.S. households.”  Pat Robertson has come out in opposition to a la carte as well.  Would anyone seriously suggest that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are cable industry stooges bent on defending Hollywood smut?

Educational programming stands to suffer as well.  Pro-regulation forces claim that a la carte will only result in the loss of silly, hyper-specific channels, but Judith McHale, president of Discovery Communications, told a Senate panel last year that “Discovery’s award-winning networks will not exist in an a la carte environment and consumers will have lost the channels they regard as the pre-eminent source of high quality, family-friendly programming.”  Discovery’s networks include such obscurities as Animal Planet, TLC and of course the Discovery Channel, in addition to a dozen other channels focusing on health, science, travel and kids’ programming.

Lest conservatives think that a la carte will affect all players equally, think again.  If an a la carte pricing scheme were to knock channels near and dear to liberal hearts off the air, how long would it be before liberal activists and their Democratic allies in Congress were calling for taxpayer subsidies to keep them on the air in the name of diversity?  

One needs to look no further than a high school economics textbook to understand why a la carte is a bad idea.  Cable providers depend on the same bundling model as dozens of other industries for the economies of scale necessary to offer an unprecedented selection of diverse programming in an increasingly competitive marketplace.  

Bundling allows providers (or manufacturers, or publishers, or service providers) to offer the maximum selection at the lowest possible price.  Cars sold in Alaska come with air conditioning, and newspapers come with comics whether a particular subscriber reads them or not, because of a bundling model that offers consumers more for less.  Should the government mandate that these, and a host of other industries, start offering their products tailor-made to each customer?

The cable industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to educate parents as to the multitude of tools they already have to exercise near absolute control over the content that flows into their homes.  An a la carte cable pricing mandate is a big government solution that would have the unintended consequence of destroying religious, educational and family-friendly programming, stifling programming innovation and resulting in higher prices, all to solve a problem consumers have the ability to solve for themselves.  Now where is the conservatism in that?