Tuned In

The Customer Is Always Right—Except on Cable

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That distant screeching sound you heard this afternoon was the sound of cable and media companies, collectively squealing like stuck pigs at a new report from the Federal Communications Commission, arguing in favor of "a la carte" pricing for cable. "A la carte" cable does not, alas, mean the ability to have your cable box deliver a restaurant-quality meal to your living room; it means being able to buy cable channels individually, skipping those that offend or just bore you. The report—sure to be contested by media companies who say that a la carte would be the end of the world as they know it— contends that most customers would save money under the system.

For more on the arguments for and against a la carte—and why I think it’s a good idea even though I can’t stand many of the people who are in favor of it–see here. Without repeating my jeremiad, there are some weird ironies in the battle. For instance, one factor behind the FCC push for a la carte are the anti-indecency groups that often work in sync with religious activists. So who are among the groups that stand to suffer most from a la carte pricing? Small religious broadcasters, who—like many small cable channels—run the risk that too few people will pay for them to keep them alive.

By the same token, it’s funny to hear media conglomerates argue against a la carte and in favor of bundling cable channels when, in nearly every other aspect, they’re trying to make more money by encouraging customers to buy media a la carte. Songs and TV shows through iTunes. DVDs. Pay-per-view. Premium channels. DVRs. In most ways, the media future that these companies are building is about customizing your media environment—and paying for the privilege. It’s hard to make the moral argument that buying cable channels should be the one exception.

The report won’t come to much anytime soon, since the FCC can’t mandate that cable carriers sell channels a la carte; the current pricing system is well-entrenched; and in too many areas, the competition among TV providers is limited. But if corporate America finds its customers demanding more choice and control over their media, they shouldn’t be surprised. That’s what corporate America has taught us to do.