Cable TV: Buffet vs. Al A Carte

Today, what really stuck my fancy, was this fascinating piece from my beloved Slate Magazine, about cable TV and the pros and cons of offering channels a la carte instead of as packages:

I Want My MTV
But you can keep your MTV2.

Being the pessimistic blogger that I am, I’m naturally going to focus on the cons.

The knee-jerk reaction of most people, I think, would be to push for having the option of selecting (and paying for) only the channels they would watch, while opting out of the ones they wouldn’t. It is, really, a reasonable thing to want — in a perfect world. However, I think what most people fail to realize is that if we were to take this route, we would end up with fewer available options, and the ones we would be left with would be largely driven by ratings and popular demand.

Allow me to explain: Have you ever fallen in love with a new TV show, only to have the network cancel the show right away because it didn’t have enough viewers or some other stupid reason? Now, imagine that on a channel level. I prefer VH1 over MTV. I prefer the Travel Channel over ESPN. I hate TLC because it’s all home-improvement shows anymore. I watch Discovery Health. I like the BBC and Turner Classic Movies. Are you the kind of person who will go see an independent film instead of seeing Aqua Man vs. Noah’s Arc at the superplex? Channels won’t survive unless they have enough people willing to pay to keep them on the air. Individual tastes will matter little. All channels will be geared toward a mass audience to ensure their survival.

Do you want all of your TV viewing choices to be like the mass-audience, totally-non-offensive, watered-down poo we get on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and the WB? Sure, we occasionally get some good stuff like the Law & Orders, and we may get a channel full of them. But, how do you like Seventh Heaven, Felicity, and Touched By An Angel? Get ready for the Wholesome Channel! And Wholesome Channel 2, quickly followed by WC3 & WC4. How about the Build A Deck Channel? Want that? I hope so! There will be a bunch of those to choose from. And you can say goodbye to Turner Classic Movies. Do you think the Oxygen Network would have ever come into being if cable execs and stockholders had to bet their profits on whether it would draw 20 million subscribers? What about the LOGO channel? Do you think all those white-haired investors are going to put their money on LOGO or The Wholesome Channel? Which will they choose? Homosexuals or Home Improvement? Documentaries or Divorce Court? Westminster Dog Shows or WWF Smackdowns? It’s going to be Jesus building barbeque pits with Hulk Hogan, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on every channel and you’re going to like it!

OK. OK. Deep breath…

If we want more choices that also include the obscure choices, we’re going to have to accept the fact that it includes paying for things we don’t want. That’s the only way it can happen. So when they ask — and they will — be sure to tell them you like your cable served buffet style because if you want to order off the menu, it’ll be nothing but boiled meat and potatoes.


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