(USA TODAY) -- Online music retailers usually don't force consumers to buy an entire album to get a favorite song.
consumers wonder why satellite and cable operators can't do something
similar and allow them to purchase TV service by the channel instead of a
bundle of dozens or even hundreds of networks, many of which they'll
The idea of "a la carte" cable and satellite
television has been around for years. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has
jump-started a new national conversation with a bill he introduced in
Congress this month that would use regulatory incentives to encourage
programmers and distributors to unbundle their channels and offer a la
McCain immediately picked up support from
watchdog groups such as the Consumers Union and others who see his
legislation as a way to shake up the status quo while technological
innovations such as Internet TV break into the mainstream video market.
cable prices also are fueling the calls for a la carte. According to a
Federal Communications Commission survey, rates for expanded basic
cable, a popular cable tier, grew an average of 6.1 percent a year
between 1995 and 2011. The average monthly price for the service is
"I believe the consumers are at a tipping point when it
comes to their monthly pay-TV bill," McCain told a Senate subcommittee
last week. "In my view, the a la carte option is a non-regulatory and
consumer-friendly way to provide consumers with the freedom to lower
their bills and pay only for what they watch."
But while the
concept is popular with many cable customers, and technology and other
market forces appear headed in that direction, most observers doubt that
even a senator with the national stature of McCain, a one-time
presidential nominee, can bend the entrenched Washington lobbies of the
cable industry, the broadcasters and the programmers to his will.
lobbyists argue that a la carte pricing is not financially feasible,
likely would mean the end of many channels that are not popular enough
to survive without it, and probably wouldn't even save viewers much
money, either. Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington
bureau, has blasted the a la carte cable idea on the grounds it would
economically hurt minorities and "kill diversity in programming."
leaders also argue that such issues might be better left to the free
market to sort out, pointing to the ongoing revolution in video
technology that gives consumers a variety of new viewing options - such
as online video, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and digital video recorders - and
allows them to watch their favorite shows and movies on their
schedules. A traditional TV set no longer is even necessary. Many young
people are increasingly relying on their iPads, smartphones and laptop
computers to watch video.
"These are big issues, but is anything
going to happen? No," said A. Michael Noll, a University of Southern
California professor emeritus and expert on telecommunications policy
and TV technology. "The cable companies have tremendous lobbying power -
more power than John McCain."
Long shot to become law
In a recent interview with The Arizona Republic, even McCain acknowledged that his bill is a long shot to become law this year.
be surprised (if it passes), because the cable companies and the
satellite companies are such a powerful special interest," McCain said.
"But we'll keep trying."
It's unclear whether the Senate Commerce,
Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over
telecommunications issues, even intends to return to the a la carte
programming issue in a serious way.
But McCain, a longtime
champion of a la carte cable, was allowed to make his case last Tuesday
before its Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet
during a hearing on the "State of Video." In his remarks, McCain
compared the bundling of programming in cable and satellite packages to
forcing customers to pay for the entire menu at a restaurant in order to
get what they want to eat.
"Basically, I support a la carte, and I
believe most Americans do, for the basic reason that consumers
shouldn't have to pay for television channels they don't watch and have
no interest in watching," said McCain, a former Commerce Committee
chairman who no longer sits on the panel.
Powell, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications
Association, countered that several independent studies have raised
questions about whether shifting to an a la carte system would actually
save customers money.
The audience size for each channel would
shrink dramatically, and prices likely would increase "quite
substantially" in order to make up for the revenue loss that would
accompany a smaller advertising base, Powell said. Some of the less
popular-but still culturally significant and diverse- channels might not
survive a transition to a la carte pricing and would be lost to their
"It doesn't take long for consumers,
putting those pieces together, to quickly get to a package that costs
something very similar to what they were paying before, if not more,"
Powell, a former FCC chairman, told the subcommittee.
The cable industry also realizes that the market is
changing and younger customers expect personalized options.
"As the video model evolves, expect to see channel
lineups that are personalized and recommendation engines that modify
content choices to your preferences," Powell said.
Gordon Smith, a former Republican senator from Oregon who
now heads the National Association of Broadcasters, echoed that in
response to a question about a la carte: "There are tremendous market
forces anyway that are creating kinds of adjustments."
Despite expanding choices, some consumers who like the
a la carte idea say they're discouraged by what they still view as a
lack of real competition and options in pay TV, which frequently is
packaged with phone and Internet service.
"When they bundle it, you've got to have this in order to get
this, and if you drop this, then you lose out on the rest of the stuff,"
said David Blare, 48, a utility-company electrician in Mesa. "I just
don't think that's right."
Supporters want to try it
Consumer groups have tended to appreciate McCain's willingness to tackle the pay-TV issues.
"A lot of people today feel like they're getting ripped off,"
said John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge, a
Washington, D.C.-based public-interest organization that focuses on
Internet and other technology issues. "So I support Senator McCain's
bill because it's aimed at giving consumers a lot more choice and
Online video is making encouraging
progress, but so far seems to be providing more competition to the
traditional video-rental store than to cable companies, which haven't
yet had to respond with lower prices, Bergmayer told the subcommittee.
"For most users, it is a supplement to cable, not a replacement," he said.