The false choice of a la carte TV

Perspective Anyone who’s taken even a brief glance at their video provider’s channel offerings knows that the number of networks currently available is staggering.

We’ve come a long way from the days when a measly three networks were all you could get. These days, it seems like there’s a channel for every possible niche and interest–sometimes two or three. Yet in the midst of this outpouring of content, a small but vocal faction is still complaining about a lack of choice.

At a recent communications forum in Aspen, Colo., Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, once again announced his support for imposing federal authority over how your video programming company packages its lineup. Martin would force providers to offer channels on an “a la carte,” or per-channel basis, replacing the current system in which subscribers buy bundled packages. He claims that such a rule would aid parents in fighting objectionable content, and that it would allow consumers to pay only for the channels they want, ostensibly saving them money.

Sounds nice, right? Too bad enacting such a law would be counterproductive on all fronts. Never mind that it’s simply absurd for the government to be puttering around in America’s television sets, as if there’s some enumerated right to a certain type of TV. Martin’s line that it’s a tool to fight indecency is just a pander to interest-group outrage. And, far from being easy on consumer pocketbooks, a la carte would force consumers to pay more for less–all while barricading opportunities for the development of new channels.

Martin likes to pitch a la carte as a way for parents to fend off indecency. But where’s the clamor for government help with controlling the clicker? Nowhere to be found. A survey of U.S. TV viewers by Russell Research revealed that only 9 percent believe the government should increase control of television programming.

For those who want to choose what they watch and when they watch it, there are numerous options already available. What did the other 91 percent think about the optimal way to direct children’s TV viewing? Quite sensibly, they answered “parental involvement.” Turns out people overwhelmingly think parents–not government–should be in charge of what their kids watch.

The FCC might point to the piles of indecency complaints it receives, but they’re almost exclusively the work of a small, highly overrepresented squad of committed complainers, the Parents Television Council. Out of the whopping 240,000 complaints the FCC received in 2003, 99.8 percent were generated by the PTC’s online complaint form. In July of 2005, the FCC received more than 23,000 complaints. Only five came from other sources. Take the PTC’s computer-generated protests out of the equation, and you’re left with virtual silence.

On the issue of pricing, Martin’s claims that a la carte mandates would make programming less expensive sound good, but fall apart under closer inspection. Much of the cost is in the infrastructure, meaning that you can’t simply take the number of channels on your bill and divide by the total cost to see how much the per-channel rate would be. Any a la carte service would likely have to include a flat rate for connection in addition to the per-channel rate.

And updating the infrastructure and pricing would add costs too, meaning that even those customers who stuck with traditional bundles would likely see their prices rise. A study by research firm Booze Allen Hamilton figured that an a la carte requirement could raise even the cost of current bundles by as much as 15 percent. Cheaper? Not by a long shot.

As for channel variety, a la carte could decimate the mechanisms that allow the hundreds of niche-interest networks to flourish on the ever-expanding channel rolls. Specialty networks are often sold to providers as part of channel groups and then packaged into basic programming bundles. They pick up support based on their ability to find their way into packages, and thus into consumers’ homes.

It’s a crucial part of the development process that allows smaller channels–especially those devoted to religious and minority programming–to flourish. Today’s spectacular array of channels is a direct result of this process, and a la carte could kill the prospects for any number of new networks.

And for those who want to choose what they watch and when they watch it, there are numerous options already available. DVD box sets of TV shows have proved surprisingly popular. On the internet, iTunes users can download shows to their computers and iPods, and many networks now post popular shows like “Lost” and “Heroes” online right after they air. Consumers do indeed want more options–and in the form of more channels and more ways to watch, that’s just what the market has delivered.

It hardly needs to be said, but if choice is what you want, don’t look to the government.

Peter Suderman is a writer at FreedomWorks, a limited government advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.