War of the Words Over a la Carte Cable

We’ve heard for months from consumer groups and some Washington politicians that what consumers really want from cable is “ala carte” pricing, in which they pay for the channels they want and don’t pay for channels that they don’t want.

Of course, cable companies should be free to tailor their offerings that way if that’s what they think their consumers want. But that’s responding to consumer demand, not government regulation, which is what the ala carte proponents want.

There are two drivers behind the call for ala carte pricing: First is the assumption that it will result in lower cable prices; and second, that people who object to the content on certain channels can feel that their money isn’t paying for content they object to.

They’re wrong on both counts.

What happens when a cable company attempts to do something that even slightly resembles ala carte pricing by trying to package channels so that only those who value the channel have to pay for it?

A war of words.

TimeWarner Cable, for example, wants to offer the NFL Network as part of a “sports package” so that only those who are interested in sports programming pay for the channel. That way, people who don’t watch sports don’t have to pay for the NFL Channel (hence, ala carte).

In Dallas (and in other cities) the NFL Network has been running radio commercials asking consumers to call TimeWarner Cable and complain about the company “not letting us have the NFL Network.” Websites have been set up both by the NFL Network and by TimeWarner Cable to explain their positions.

Consumers, especially sports consumers, may be confused by all of this. They are being led by the NFL Network to believe that somehow TimeWarner Cable is taking something away from them that they are entitled to by virtue of subscribing to TimeWarner Cable.

The NFL Network is simply trying to pry the largest amount of fees it can out of TimeWarner by insisting that it be included in the basic cable package, in which case the NFL Network gets a slice out of every TimeWarner Cable customer, whether you watch the NFL Network or not.

It’s the market at work. A bit messy, but it will get sorted out. But letting the market sort it out is far better than having the government mandate ala carte pricing.