Let A La Carte Come, If the Market Bears It

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“You can always turn the television off and, of course, block the channels you don’t want. But why should you have to?” — FCC chairman Kevin Martin

Chairman Martin clearly has an agenda, as Ted Hearn demonstrates in “What’s Really on Martin’s Menu,” page 16. He is using all means at his disposal to satisfy Christian and family groups that he can clean up raunch on cable television.

Given that Desperate Housewives (an over-the-air show) is considered raunchy by some viewers and tame by others, it’s impossible to say where to draw the line. Which has led to this state: Since raunchiness is in the eye of the beholder, let every beholder choose whatever channel lineup they want from their cable provider.

TWO CHOICES

One way is to set a price on every channel and “simply” let viewers pick which they want. Another is to let viewers create their own basic service, picking any 10 channels for a flat fee of $20, according to Martin.

The problems with that sound endless. Cable systems, satellite providers and even the new folks, Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc., say they can’t easily change over to a la carte pricing. To get plum channels like ESPN or MTV: Music Television, a distributor typically has to agree to carry sister channels as well. The deals they sign last 10 or 15 years.

Then there’s billing: Who wants to write the code to allow customers to pick and choose any channel they want for any duration they want? Not only is it a considerable software project, it will be a customer-service nightmare. Imagine the challenges that’ll come in to the call center over the channel that Melissa or Matt ordered — and Dad and Mom didn’t.

Martin is on point and missing the point at the same time. Turning off TV and blocking channels are viable solutions, if you’re offended by what you see. There are other things you can do with your life.

What’s more: the movement to personal management of television programming is already under way.

Individual programs and individual channels are the norm on the Internet. PocketDishes, iPods and other digital recording devices in Americans’ hands will be copying out or downloading programs, one at a time. The biggest threat to tiered pricing will really be worldwide file-sharing, as this digital recording takes hold. In the meantime, some large video programming reseller will take a shine to the idea; and test it out.

Take AT&T, which is being coy. Through a spokesman, David Pacholcyzk, it pledges to offer “new interactive services” on its TV systems that will provide the “opportunity to customize the individual entertainment experience.” Does that mean you will be able to subscribe to any channel you want, individually, not just packages of services? “It’s on our wish list,’’ he says.

Which means AT&T so far hasn’t been able to figure out how to do that and hasn’t been able to broker deals that will allow it to sell channels a la carte.

But the principle is clear. When cable, satellite, telephone and wireless broadband companies compete, someone will come up with an a la carte scheme, as a differentiator. Then the resistance will come tumbling down.

Don’t be surprised if it is a telephone company that acts this way. For a century, phone companies have priced every service they offer individually; and then group them in bundles. They’ve used individual product pricing to move customers up to tiered pricing.

The cable approach has been to start and end with tiers. Now, if you start breaking down tiers, people who have sampled and paid for the whole universe may move just pay for a handful of channels they actually watch.

That’s a red herring. All you have to do is price individual channels at a logical point, say, an average of $4.50 a piece (ESPN gets you $7), and then your 40-channel $25 tiers and 100-channel $50 tiers sell themselves.

SAVING A STATUS QUO

This whole skirmish is about the cable industry preserving a status quo, which is kind of sad. After a half-century of changing the rules of television, system operators and some programmers are saying they can’t change their own.

And Martin? He seems to want a scalp, to establish his machismo as a policymaker.

Has it come to this? If there is substance to this firefight, then Martin must be saying that, somehow, pay television is a public utility that must be regulated on pricing and content. If so, then put that proposition out in the open and fight it out.

Or just let people vote the old-fashioned way: With their eyes, their pocketbooks and their button-pushing fingers.

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