Exploding TV: Death on the a la carte menu

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is again pushing a la carte cable.

Like every cable customer, I resent paying for channels I don’t want. I hate sports. I cannot abide religious nuts. I don’t speak Spanish. I miss various demographic targets. I have no use for tons of channels and would prefer not to pay for them.

At the same time, I think the marketplace will take care of this in the form of a la carte program downloading and purchasing on the internet. The fact that I can watch Desperate Housewives via iTunes — albeit at a high price — broke the lock that cable MSOs had on programming.

Martin is now speeding up the process.

For if a la carte pricing really comes into effect, it will kill off lots of channels that could not be supported in the open marketplace. That is, there aren’t enough people willing to support channels on their own and they survive only because they are subsidized via bundled pricing and cozy deals among the holders of content and distribution in cable. If they had to make it on advertising alone, they’d fail. If they had to make it on consumer fees alone, they’d fail. They simply don’t have the audience to support either. But cable companies make more by making us buy more TV and so they survive. That is the system Martin is threatening to break.

And when it does break, this will drive people to finding different, better, cheaper, easier means of getting the programs they want. And it will drive program owners to find more and more efficient ways to distribute their shows to larger audiences. Just as today, we no longer know the difference between broadcast and cable, soon enough we won’t know whether the shows we want to see come from a network or from the internet. And when we reach that world, we’ll no longer be hostage to network programmers’ schedules. And then we’ll have to ask: What is a network, anyway, and why do we need them?

The world of on-demand content is coming.

The funny thing is that Martin, a Republican, is using his indecency crusade to hurt big business big time. At FourSquare, I challenged him on this, saying that the FCC’s and PTC’s fringe minority jihad against Howard Stern and free speech forced Stern to satellite and immediately shrunk not only the businesses of Clear Channel and next Viacom but also the entire radio industry. I said he should be paying attention to modernizing our infrastructure instead of to Stern’s farts.

Now, by threatening regulation and censorship of cable in the form of trying to force a la carte pricing, he will be doing the same thing — he will be shrinking the network TV business.

For those who want to cheer Martin from the perspectives of fighting for consumers or fighting against big media, remember: You are dancing with the devil who wants to censor your speech. Danger, danger, Will.

This morning, Howard Stern had a good laugh about this for he said that the FCC will only kill tons of cable channels. I agree. I looked at the lineup I’m forcefed by Cablevision.

The channels I want: NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, HBO (though I’d rather watch it on demand), PBS, HGTV (the wife), CNN, FoxNews, Disney (though the kids watch that on demand), Nick (for a bit longer), Comedy (thank you, Jon Stewart), VH1, Encore, maybe the Weather Channel (though I get weather online now). That’s pretty much it.

The channels I don’t want, a partial list: WB, UPN, Pax, any religious channels, any Spanish channels (don’nt speak it), News12 (cheesey local cable news), MSNBC, CNBC, Discovery, Discovery Times, Discovery Home, TLC, Toons, TVLand, all the ESPNs, USA, TNT, Fx, TBS, Spike, WE, Oxygen, AMC, Bravo, Lifetime, A&E, Sci-fi, History, ABC Family, MTV, E! (without Howard, what is there?), BET, Fuse, Animal Planet, Travel, Fit TV, Speed, YES, MSG, FSN, QVC, HSN, Game, TCM, Golf, Biography, Military, G4 (after they ruined TechTV), FMC, Hallmark (yech)…. And on and on….

OK, I might want to see an occasional A&E show — occasional as in twice a year. So they charge me $2 each. I’d pay the price.

Or they’d be desperate to keep viewers for their ad base and they’d end up distributing their channels and every show on them online. That’s where this is headed. And the FCC is speeding it along that path. Is that the FCC’s job? Is so-called indecency the reason to do it? No on both counts. But it’s fun to watch, for the end result may well be more control of media in our hands. And that is a good thing.

: LATER: Glenn Reynold says:


“You can always turn the television off and, of course, block the channels you don’t want,” Martin said, “but why should you have to?”

Um, so that other people can watch the shows they want to, maybe?