Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) is working with Consumers Union to introduce legislation that would force cable television companies to offer "a la carte" TV programming options to subscribers.
Under the plan, described in this article, cable television broadcasters could not force consumers to accept channels they do not want or watch in a limited number of channel "packages." Instead, the companies would have to offer each channel with its own price tag, just like "big dish" satellite TV used to offer.
Consumers Union says that the new requirement would help reduce cable television bills which have risen at three times the rate of inflation. Opponents in the cable television industry claim that channel choice would cost too much to implement and that less-watched channels, such as BET, could not survive.
McCain and others in Congress don't buy that argument, pointing out that supermarkets offer plenty of choice with complete a la carte freedom. "When I go to the grocery store to buy a quart of milk, I don't have to buy a package of celery and a bunch of broccoli," McCain said. "I don't like broccoli."
I agree with Senator McCain and Consumers Union. This idea is terrific. It should also have the side effect of reducing the attractiveness of media consolidation. The law must have teeth, however. My personal choice would be BBC America (even though BBC America seems to have turned into the BBC Home Improvement Channel). I don't have cable TV or satellite because the package price, with that channel, is way too high. But in an a la carte system I might subscribe, assuming the price is more reasonable. Not to mention that BBC America would likely cut back on the overdose of home improvement programming, because they'd no longer have to program for package inclusion.
I also think that the cable TV systems have no problem with pay per view, so their argument that pay per channel is too difficult and too costly rings especially hollow. A simple channel selection web site is all that's needed with a minimum commitment of one month's subscription, say.
And I think such a plan would encourage TV channels to care more about their viewers and less about their advertisers. That could also diminish the influence of the religious right (and their advertiser boycott campaigns). HBO and Showtime, for example, are current a la carte channels (albeit premium ones). Those channels specialize in advertiser-free, edgy programming. We need more channels like that at all price points, not fewer.