A la carte cable tv?
December 16, 2005 9:46 PM   Subscribe

I noticed tonight that my Dish TV basic-subscription service no longer offers MSNBC and suddenly does offer FOX News. Strange indeed, but the bigger issue methinks is a potential plus in that a la carte programming may be on its way soon. Great, you say, right? Perhaps not -- because if you only pay for what you get, that means that the little guys (like Link TV, the RFD network and Free Speech TV) likely face a big honkin' challenge in being visible and thus viable. So. Given that...do we really want pay-per-channel programming? Or is this just a moot point considering that "convergence" is creeping ever so closer?
posted by diastematic (49 comments total)
Here in Quebec we have a la carte programming. But you can only do it if you take a couple of packages. I almost only watch The Documentary channel, BBC World and IFC and in order to get those I need to get a lot of crap too. So my monthly bill is much higher than I want. I don't watch much, maybe two hours a week, so those are expensive hours. So maybe I give it up alltogether. Hard decision to make though, since ma blonde likes to watch crime shows. And Les Bougon and Da Vinci.
posted by kika at 9:59 PM on December 16, 2005

People don't want any more choice than is convenient, and the average subscriber doesn't want to spend a half-hour checkmarking boxes before signing up for cable. People may not watch obscure channels, but they like having them to flip past; and the cable companies know there's always value in justifying the cost by bragging about 500+ channels, even if there's an unspoken realization that no one will watch more than 20.
posted by cribcage at 10:01 PM on December 16, 2005

If someone offered a package that consisted of only Comedy Central (Daily Show and South Park), USA (Monk), Cartoon Network (Adult Swim if they have something cool on) Sundance (they're showing MST3K: The Movie this month), and the Weather Channel (just in case) I would be happy. I get my news from the web these days anyway.
posted by JHarris at 10:08 PM on December 16, 2005

No. We must not give the consumer choice. He may choose things we dislike, and we just can't have that.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:10 PM on December 16, 2005

I'm tired of paying for shit I hate - like the goddamn golf channel.

Ah, but I'm fine with paying for the golf channel (which I would never watch), in exchange for having golf fans subsidize my viewing of trio, vh1 classics, or the occassional show on Ovation. Ala Carte programming would severely hurt many of the niche channels.
posted by drezdn at 10:53 PM on December 16, 2005

I would actually consider cable if they offered a la carte, and have been saying so for years. What niche channels? In medium markets there is no speciality channels with basic cable. Unless you count Classic sports or some crapola like that
posted by edgeways at 10:54 PM on December 16, 2005

Is this something I'd need to own a TV to understand?
posted by freebird at 11:08 PM on December 16, 2005

The History Channel, Discovery Channel, TLC, Etc.
posted by drezdn at 11:13 PM on December 16, 2005

freebird: yes, why did you ask?
posted by edgeways at 11:14 PM on December 16, 2005

I would totally consider springing for cable, if I could pick the (four) channels I would watch, and pay considerably less because of that. I understand that a lot of channels would lose money this way, but just looking out for myself...I'd love to have my Comedy Central, TLC, and a handful of other, and be able to afford it.
posted by kalimac at 11:23 PM on December 16, 2005

Look at me everyone, I'm above all this TV nonsense.
posted by knave at 11:35 PM on December 16, 2005

An even bigger issue is that Dish TV has started recording their goddamn commercials on the DVR! And they super-protect it so it won't be deleted if my hard drive is full, something I actually want to watch will!
posted by dirigibleman at 11:44 PM on December 16, 2005

The typical line from Comcast was always that ala carte programming would actually in the long run cost more than their current block programming pricing schemes. I'm not sure exactly why, but I think it had something to do with ease of deployment and advertising sales. When comcast sells ad space it is across multiple networks at certain times.

Advertising is the key.
posted by tweak at 12:33 AM on December 17, 2005

freebird: yes, why did you ask?

Because the memes have got me, and now they'll have you too!

Run! Take the shuttle! Save yourselves, it's too late for me. I'll fly the mothership into the Triax Cannon before it can level LA.
posted by freebird at 1:05 AM on December 17, 2005

Look at me everyone, I'm above all this TV nonsense.

Well, I am above all this TV nonsense.

Perhaps if I were truly aloof enough I woudn't have bothered to share, but, I really do take pride in the fact that TV has nothing to do with my life. As a result, occasionaly, I will point this out. With *gasp* a smug sense of superiority.

A well earned smug sense of superiourity that all your "let's make fun of the guy that makes a 'do you need a TV to understand?'" quip makes not a bit of difference to.

I do not watch TV. I don't own one. Does that make me better? Probably not. Does that make my life better? Without a doubt.
posted by sourwookie at 1:08 AM on December 17, 2005

(Full disclosure - I work for Dish, but I don't speak for them, so I'm ignoring the Dish specific issues above. Note, though, that the DishTV.com link above is a retailer, Dish Network is www.dishnetwork.com.)

This is political posturing - the FCC has nothing to do with how the cable industry packages its stations. Packaging is largely dictatated by the agreements between the program distributors and the conglomerates that produce the programming - Viacom, ABC/Disney, and so forth. If you want Nickelodeon, you get Spike and MTV along with it.

Cable pricing is basically infrastructure+programming cost+profit margin. Infrastructure is the same cost whether you've got 1 channel or 180 (and is by far the largest chunk.) Competition is the only way to bring profit margin down, and won't have anything to do with ala carte. The question is would the savings in programming cost offset the more expensive infrastructure made necessary by ala carte pricing?
posted by swell at 1:58 AM on December 17, 2005

yah, i don't think my tv has been on since the katrina aftermath. it's a distinct disadvantage in smalltalk situations, and a tremendous advantage in detecting a major source of herd mentality.
posted by quonsar at 2:02 AM on December 17, 2005

Back to the original post, I doubt this is really a harbinger of the a la carte programming model. From what I've read, MSNBC, Bloomberg and ESPN News had been in "free preview" mode on the lowest programming tier of Dishnetwork. They were replaced by Fox News, ESPN and CNBC.

What's a bit more interesting is that Dishnetwork made this move in light of the fact that Fox is owned by their competitor in the satellite market, DirecTV, part of the Rupert Murdoch monarchy.
posted by SteveInMaine at 2:35 AM on December 17, 2005

haven't listened to radio since last.fm
i'm waiting on last.tv
'till that time bittorrent with rss will do the trick
posted by borq at 2:41 AM on December 17, 2005

A la carte - yeah, I think that's the way to go.

The little networks would probably have to combine, but...it means we'll probably get the best of each.

I'm really not sure how it all works out, but if we're talking advertising dollars, and I think we are, then there are still people who will target those cool, obscure channels.

Which means we don't have to sit throught the millionth Ford commercial, just the hundred-thousandth Preperation H syllogism.
posted by rougy at 3:14 AM on December 17, 2005

So if the Golf channel fans subsidize the good stuff, OK - I can almost see someone buying a package because it's got golf in it. I can't see that rationale behind the 6 Christian channels, or the 14 home-shopping channels, though.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:53 AM on December 17, 2005

> Well, I am above all this TV nonsense.

Me, too. But it's an interesting problem to discuss.

I am in favor of requiring cable channels to subsidize and carry smart stuff and to offer a selection of it for free to all subscribers. Set up a committee of educators that gets to decide what qualifies as smart stuff -- yes to the history channel, no to the golf channel, yes to the art channel, no to MTV, etc. -- and, if the committee is diverse enough, you'll get a goodish mix.

It might also be interesting to consider offering antidote channels. If someone buys, for example, Fox News, also give that person a noncommercial news channel that is just as far to the left as Fox is to the right, and automatically give that channel a percentage of the money the subscriber paid to get Fox. If someone buys the Anti-Evolution Channel, automatically add to that person's cable package (and give money to) an actual science channel. And so on. Let the educators work out the table of antidotes. It would be fun. You want the All-Jesus Channel? Cool, but you also get the All Religions Are Equal Channel and the Science Channel.

And everyone should get a library card that comes with a special deal -- check out (and return on time) at least two books every two weeks and you get a discount on your cable bill. At the least, that would remind people where their library is and how to use it.
posted by pracowity at 5:24 AM on December 17, 2005

Anyone know is the rush to flat screen tvs is lowering the price of quality CRT tvs? I don't have a television, but am thinking of buying one to appease my girlfriend...
posted by ParisParamus at 5:39 AM on December 17, 2005

...or the 14 home-shopping channels

That's easy. Your cable/satellite provider gets a bounty from the shopping channels. So it is a revenue stream.

I watch very little TV [maybe 44 minutes a day. Thank you TiVo!] but when I don't watch any of the crap. So I pay for the highest tier of programming because of the way the channels are set up. To get BBC America and Sundance I have to get the super-mondo package.

If I could pay only for what I watch I'd get those channels + Comedy Central and Adult Swim. I'd pay $5 a month each for these channels [if they still carried commercials] and it would still reduce my cable bill by about 3/4th. Not really a lot of motivation for the cable channels to change their model when they have all of us that are paying for the packages anyway. And I'm part of the minority of customers that would pay so much for these channels since consumers have been trained to expect the packages.

I'd subscribe to an all-music video channel if one was offered. MTV, MTV2 and fuse don't count. Something like MTV2 from years ago, or fuse when it was called MuchMusic and still a simulcast of the Canadian product. I would also love to be able to get non-US news channels and more of the BBC channels than that bastardization called BBC America. And it would be nice to watch LCI Matin.
posted by birdherder at 5:46 AM on December 17, 2005

I love tv. The more channels, the better. I read books and watch tv and surf the net at pretty much all the same time and it all fuses together into one glorious entertainment mash.
posted by JanetLand at 6:05 AM on December 17, 2005

this sure sounds nice, but it's just gonna make it even harder for studios to become profittable and the end result is gonna be even more crap for-the-masses programming on all networks.
posted by mcsweetie at 6:36 AM on December 17, 2005

a la carte channels are just a minor and inefficient diversion to where the true future lies, total on-demand television. Every channel, every show, always available.

I do find the progression interesting. My 2 year old already has conceptually mastered on-demand television due to the mighty Tivo.

As an aside, Tivo's should be issued to every family bringing home a baby from the hospital.

Also, to get further off topic, those people who dedicate their lives to making children's educational programming that is also fun to watch should all be consecrated to Sainthood, en masse.

I take my child's education very seriously, but you can't educate every minute of every day, and sometimes children, being children, want to be entertained.

And occasionally you are surprised, like several months ago when my son walked up to me and counted up to thirteen, and we had never exceeded 10 in our games. He had seen The Count on Seasame Street literally 15 minutes previous, and learned something he shared with me immediately afterwards.

I know some people bristle at television, especially as it regards children, but when your child can tell his grandmother to open the door in both English and Spanish and he's not yet quite two, you might find a little Dora the Explorer is just as valuable as another round of flash cards.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:46 AM on December 17, 2005

OK, seriously, does anyone here REALLY believe that "A'la Carte" is going to save them significant money on their cable bills? REALLY?

If you actually believe that the cable companies won't sieze this as an excuse to make you pay more for the same service, you're being very foolish. Just look at the history of the industry. Constantly rising prices COUPLED with greater and greater infusions of commercials into a medium which was supposed to be commercial-free. Remember that? You were paying so that you DIDN'T have to watch commercials.

So we all pay about $50 a month to receive our 500 channels of crap on the TV. If they go to a'la carte, what's going to happen? I would bet you any sum of money you would suddenly be paying a $30+ dollar "base connection charge," and then they'd start piling channels on top of that for a couple bucks a pop. So if you watch more than a half-dozen shows, suddenly you're paying about as much as you were before... but getting far fewer channels.

Because ultimately, in terms of the charge in delivering the service to you, it does not matter to the cable companies whether you're getting 1 channel or 100. It costs them the same amount to transport the video to you, either way. Thus, there WILL be a base connection fee.

So rid yourselves of the illusion that a'la carte will suddenly mean you get to only pay $10 a month for the handful of channels you want. It's NOT going to happen. No matter the wonderful idealistic principles involved, supporting this a'la carte nonsense is just handing rope over to the cable companies so that they can hang you with it later.
posted by InnocentBystander at 7:54 AM on December 17, 2005

TV makes the anger happen.
posted by Captaintripps at 8:02 AM on December 17, 2005

i liked it better when we didn't pay to watch tv. the programming was even better when i had just three channels. the more channels i got, the worse tv sucked.
posted by 3.2.3 at 8:32 AM on December 17, 2005

Paris: I dont know what impact the purchase of plasma/lcd tvs has on CRTs, but I do know that you can get a *very* nice Toshiba CRT flatscreen for about $300. That should get you a 24 or 27" tv, best picture I've ever seen that's not HD.

I haven't had cable or satellite tv since I left my parents house over 5 yrs ago. The only things I would pay to watch are NFL football games, boxing, and maybe a news channel or two and Comedy Central. *IF* I could buy package that had HBO, Showtime, the NFL Sunday Ticket package(currently offered only by DirecTV) a news channel, and Comedy Central and no other channels, and do it a la carte(at a price thats a good deal better than what I'd pay if I bought all these things as part of what you can currently get right now) I'm there. Otherwise, they will continue to get zero dollars from me as they have the last 5+yrs.

I suspect however, that most folks are tv addicts and need it at any price. I'm probably in the minority in that I can really take it or leave it. I doubt that a person such as myself figures heavily in their marketing schemes, etc.
posted by MjrMjr at 9:02 AM on December 17, 2005

I just find tv too painful and offensive and insulting to invest in. I watch a bit in the gym, and that's really all I can bear. Cable? I might pay for the Weather Channel and some sci-fi. And Mets games.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:11 AM on December 17, 2005

But only, like, maybe $10/month.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:11 AM on December 17, 2005

And everyone should get a library card that comes with a special deal -- check out (and return on time) at least two books every two weeks and you get a discount on your cable bill. At the least, that would remind people where their library is and how to use it.
That's the best idea I've heard in a long time. Sure, it'll never happen, but I am still extremely impressed by it. While we're going down the road of this thought experiment, why not have a channel that asks quiz questions 24 hours a day, that you can use your remote to answer? Base the questions on books that everyone should read, and offer either further discounts or prizes based on correct answers.
  • Who is John Galt?
  • Who has Oceania always been at war with?
  • What did Milo Minderbinder dip in chocolate and then try to convince Yossarian to eat?
  • Why were the Achaians at war with Troy?
  • Who was Telamonian Aias?
  • What was Hiro Protagonist's first job?
posted by nlindstrom at 9:25 AM on December 17, 2005

I would get an internet connection, but I hate paying for access to all those sites I don't use.
posted by cillit bang at 9:34 AM on December 17, 2005

everything in moderation. I certainly am no slave to the tv, watching perhaps 3 - 4 hours a week, but is it all evil? no, is much of it evil, sure, but we are free agents and as long as you are reasonably critical your quality of life won't degrade and perhaps will even improve. cable tv as it stands sucks monkey ass. It is like paying $1 for a two liter soda when all you need is 8 ozs, you may never drink that two liters but many people will buy it just because you get more for your money, even if you waste a good portion of it.
If the cable companies don't intentionally sabotage the effort with outrageous prices I would consider it. As it stands now, not a chance. I also don't see why they could not offer both styles concurrently. For those that love the quantity take the package, for those that love the quality, a la carte. I would guess their customer base would explode
posted by edgeways at 9:36 AM on December 17, 2005

cillit bang:


Maybe we should just all stop watching tv altogether. Its a bunch of bullshit.
posted by gagglezoomer at 11:16 AM on December 17, 2005

Something of note is that many cable stations pay to be on cable networks, so that they can sell ads to a larger audience. The other side of that is that many stations come "bundled" as part of packages, where Warner says "We'll give you TNT, so you have NBA games, but you have to take TBS too." You, as a consumer, have very little to do with which channels get picked up, and thus the "a la carte" is a bit of a canard.
posted by klangklangston at 11:20 AM on December 17, 2005

nlindstrom: I really hope Atlas Shrugged is not required reading.
posted by Captaintripps at 11:31 AM on December 17, 2005

Uggggh, great, another reactionary a la carte cable thread. I see the future, and it is tedious. Well, at least this wasn't as bad as the Slashdot thread last week.

"If only", "should", "would" ...

tweak and swell got close but InnocentBystander wins -- nailed it. Exactly. End of thread. :)
posted by intermod at 11:42 AM on December 17, 2005

RFD-TV is already free, so I doubt they're gonna get any LESS money.

People forget that "a-la-carte" has been here for decades in the form of alternative satellite systems. I could buy *just* HBO right now if I were in the US with a BUD. Nothing else. Same with virtually any other channel.

Why force companies that have no interest in that sort of programming to do it where there's already an alternative?
posted by shepd at 12:21 PM on December 17, 2005

I found this letter on one of my favorite weblogs (Eric Alterman's Altercation hosted by MSNBC.com) just yesterday and it's totally pertinent to the discussion here so I'll reprint it:

Name: Jonathan Rintels
Hometown: Center for Creative Voices in Media
May I respectfully disagree with the conclusion of your column on a la carte, particularly your citing of CURRENT and other small, experimental, or (dare I say it) progressive networks as endangered by introducing an a la carte option? We think just the opposite – that a la carte will finally introduce a level playing field to cable. Today, if you’re a CURRENT, you can’t get carriage on cable systems. Since its launch in the summer, CURRENT has not added one single cable subscriber to the 20 million it had by virtue of its purchase of the Newsworld channel. You probably heard that they actually held a rally to demand carriage outside Comcast HQ in Philly, where 7,000 people showed up. Compare that to the number of people who would attend a rally to demand carriage for Sleuth TV, just announced by NBC which will show old “A Teams”, and Comcast’s own G4 network – would seven people even show up for that rally? Yet both easily get carriage by virtue of their tie to a broadcast network or the cable operator.

Under an a la carte option, people would not have to take the Super Mega Platinum Larded Up Package from the cable operator just to get Current or similar channels. A la carte would also enable more consumers to access Current, as it would break up the cozy club/cartel of broadcasters and cable operators that eliminate most indie channels in favor of their own networks. Imagine having a menu of choices where Current is on the same list as, say MTV2 or Fox News – Current would love that!

We go into this in great detail in our report, Cable’s “Level Playing Field” – Not Level. No Field., available on our Web site. Take a look, it’s an interesting read.

You may also want to check out from the Center for Public Integrity the amount of money that broadcasters and cable operators have poured into this argument that a la carte would mean the end of minority and niche networks.
posted by Farengast at 12:47 PM on December 17, 2005

I'm surprised that nobody has yet come out with PPV educational channels. In some parts of the US, for example, it is just physically impossible to get enough English-as-second-language classes.

(Ideally, I think these classes should be offered at public libraries, using existing meeting rooms, and referencing all sorts of literary works, to encourage people not just to speak English, but to become literate and well-read.)

Three 24/7 channels, beginning, intermediate, and advanced. The programming is different from typical channels, in that it is cumulative. That is, after a time, there is no better way of teaching what a "cat" is; improvements are just made to production quality, not content.

Much of the overload by the University and even the Community College systems are in basic courses, and high school refresher courses. By putting these on TV, interactive with the students via the Internet, the students will be able to be ready for college, even if their high school failed in its mission.
posted by kablam at 12:55 PM on December 17, 2005

It used to be true that a la carte programming would be expensive for cable compare to deal with, but that's no longer true with all the digital technology the cable companies have invested in. If your cable company can do video on demand, it can technically handle a la carte without additional cost.

People who want to buy only a few cable channels would save money with a la cable, but most people would end up paying more for less, at least in terms of channels that are now generally considered part of extended basic.

As for the channels with less distribution that are on didital cable, the answers are more murky. The majority of consumers still only subscribe to analog, so they would probably have to upgrade to digital to subscribe to something like Current. It's going to take many years for most cable systems to move to all digital systems.

The satellite companies would not have this problem, but currently they do not have the room to add as many new channels as most upgraded cable systems because they're forced to use a slot for every local station in the country.
posted by spira at 4:54 PM on December 17, 2005

I've hear that the Metafilter channel is being launched. When does it actually launch?
posted by ParisParamus at 5:19 PM on December 17, 2005

Why did Dish take away my MSNBC? And, more importantly, how can I get it back?
posted by Serena at 8:12 PM on December 17, 2005

How stunningly astute of you to make such a comparison. I mean, really, it's so similar!

It is. The basic cable bundle is the same economic model as flat rate internet access. Tell me how I'm wrong.
posted by cillit bang at 8:29 PM on December 17, 2005

Because you are paying virtually no money for content (a tiny, tiny amount) when you buy your internet connection while a significant portion of the money you pay to your cable/satellite company goes for content.

I don't think your comparison is silly, but it's not a close parallel either.
posted by spira at 11:10 PM on December 17, 2005

Since its launch in the summer, CURRENT has not added one single cable subscriber to the 20 million it had by virtue of its purchase of the Newsworld channel.

CURRENT's purchase and closing of the Newsworld channel and the word "virtue" don't belong in the same fucking sentence. That is all.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:20 PM on December 18, 2005

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