A La Carte Television’s Bland Outlook


The growing drumbeat in Washington for selling cable programming a la carte, instead of in big bundles, is now being superseded by the cable industry’s bell-ringing for a family tier.

Big cable companies are trying to address the Federal Communications Commission’s campaign against “indecent” programming by introducing a tier of networks free of gratuitous violence and top-heavy sexual fare.

Time Warner Cable was first to bat last week, unveiling its version of “cable lite” with a 15-channel tier that included its own CNN Headline News and baby-boomer animation network Boomerang, as well as The Weather Channel, Disney Channel, C-SPAN 2 and 3, Toon Disney and a handful of Discovery Channel digital networks.

With a retail price of $12.99 a month Time Warner hopes to pacify the FCC and conservative lobbying groups by, in its view, making it easy for families to get the best of cable without also getting the worst (indecent content).

Time Warner officials wouldn’t speculate on how many subscribers would inevitably take the tier and drop the MSO’s basic service, but it’s a fair bet that ESPN and FX won’t have to worry about losing a swath of advertisers due to rapidly falling subscriber counts.

Mainstream networks like USA Network and Turner Network Television aren’t among the highest-rated networks in cable because 7-year old Joey is tuning in at 10 p.m. on Friday nights to watch Monk or little Suzy is eating her milk and cookies watching reruns of Law & Order. A family-friendly tier stocked with live coverage the latest John McCain-led Senate hearing or reruns of The Flintsones — and devoid of popular mainstream entertainment networks — will not be a magnet for anyone but the staunchest of indecency fanatics. The vast majority of cable customers will still subscribe to expanded basic.

Even with the family tier, calls for a la carte options won’t fade altogether, or forever, though. From a consumer’s perspective, the ability to pick and choose the networks you want to pay for is alluring — and consumers are willing to pay for what they want to see when they want to see it. How else to explain more than 1 million purchases of Lost and Desperate Housewives episodes for $1.99 each by video iPod users, when those same shows can be videotaped or digitally recorded for no extra charge?

It’s questionable how many consumers would be willing to pay $10 for ESPN, $3 for Disney Channel and $1.30 for MTV a la carte, every month, as estimated by Bear, Stearns & Co. media analyst Ray Katz.

It’s even more dubious whether consumers would pay a few extra cents each for smaller, niche and minority-targeted networks.

Sixteen civil rights organizations, including the National Council of Negro Women, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council and Hispanic cultural-advocacy group National Council of La Raza, wrote last week to the leadership of the House and Senate Commerce Committees, objecting to a la carte overtures.

If not for expanded basic services — which saturated cable TV subscribers with such networks as Black Entertainment Television and Hispanic channel Sí TV — mainstream America might not have been exposed to African-American culture outside of token broadcast programming aired during Black History Month, or to Hispanic life beyond often negative images on nightly newscasts, a la carte opponents say.

A buffet model would severely hamper networks such as multiethnic entertainment service Colours TV and Asian-targeted ImaginAsian TV, which lack the financial resources of networks backed by a Viacom or a Disney. It’s hard to break through the commotion of a 200-channel lineup.

But not all minority networks see a la carte as an albatross. Black Family Channel CEO Rick Newberger believes a pure a la carte offering, in which all networks are created equal, would give his 15 million subscriber channel a chance to let consumers instead of operators decide whether it’s worth a dime or a quarter a month.

Newberger believes he could convince more consumers to sign up for his service, an entertainment channel targeted to African Americans, than the number of viewers cable operators are giving him.

The problem with that scenario is: How do you get people to kick the tires and sample before buying? Independent and minority owned cable networks often accrue viewers who happen to be channel-surfing and stop to watch a music video or a novella and eventually become fans of the programming.

Cable certainly isn’t the ideal model for diversity, but the African-American, Hispanic, Asian, gay-and-lesbian and female images it provides through niche targeted networks far outpace those offered via the seven broadcast networks.

But without a deep-pocketed owner to help finance marketing and promotional opportunities while subsidizing quality original content, the relatively few minority networks we have today may cease to exist without the traditional expanded basic model for support.

If the drumbeat of a la carte eventually turns into a crescendo that rings throughout cable, my fear is the surviving networks — in an effort to reach the broadest audience — will all program from the same bland song book.