A La Carte Cable is Coming… to Canada

It has long been a source of frustration for people with cable in America. Many cable customers pay a lot of money to access hundreds of channels just to get those few channels that they actually want to watch. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just pay for what you actually watch. I’d love to be able to pay just to get ESPN, ESPN2, TBS, Comedy Central, and SNY which are the only cable channels I watch (Yes I’m a Mets fan, and yes the past few seasons have taken years off my life).

Well it turns out that the dream of a-la-carte cable is becoming a reality… in Canada. Since 2011 the Canadian government has been pushing the telecom industry to unbundle their services and many Canadians have been happy with the results. In the province of Quebec about 70 percent of cable customers now get a very basic broadcast package and pick a few individual channels that they actually want to watch. Most cable companies in Canada now offer some kind of a-la-carte service if the customer also uses them as a phone or internet provider as well. While Canadian cable companies have lost some revenue, a-la-carte cable has helped them salvage the business of customers who might have just cut the cord entirely by completely ditching cable. That is a trend which is growing worldwide thanks to the rise of services like Netflix.

So when will we see this coming to America? Not very soon if ever. Both cable providers and content producers have been viciously fighting any legislative attempt to unbundle cable offerings because they have a lot to lose financially. It is estimated that a-la-carte cable would reduce the total industry revenue by about $70 billion which is about half of the total revenue the Cable TV industry currently brings in. They also argue that the price customers currently pay to get the most watched cable networks like ESPN would go up and that many of the less watched channels would not be able to survive such a change. Bundling is how the popular and profitable shows and channels subsidize everything else and that would mark a sea change to the whole television industry.

Personally though, I like the consumer choice of paying only for what you want and not anything more and I would be willing to accept the unintended consequences of such a change. A-la-carte pricing options would make channels have to more directly compete against one another to get more viewers and direct, ruthless competition often produces a better product at a better price for customers. Imagine applying the philosophy behind cable bundling to just about any other product or service and you would find it ridiculous. Saving money by being able to buy only what you want without having to buy many other things you don’t want is something that would be very good for everyone who enjoys watching television.

Sadly that’s only a fantasy here.

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