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Give people what they want

Dec 30, 2002  •  Post A Comment

It never hurts to give the people what they want.
Lobbyists in Washington are gearing up to try to push cable operators into offering subscriber-selected custom channel packages, a move that they hope would do away with the decades-old tier system and alleviate the burden of costly programming services from those consumers who don’t want them. It’s a bold proposition that would radically alter the way the cable business operates and one that some fear would eliminate the opportunities for new and fledgling cable networks to be seen and catch on.
It can’t be denied that a la carte program packaging is an idea whose time has come. The number of channel choices has grown geometrically, bringing narrowcasting to maturity, and increasingly sophisticated, computer-savvy viewers are used to finding exactly what they want when they want it. Why subscribe to 30 magazines when you’ll only read five or six?
The mindset that cable subscription packages can continue as they have been is short-sighted, to say the least. There are just too many options today. With the advent of video-on-demand and the personal video recorder, custom programming is already a reality for many viewers. Why should they wade through scores of unwanted cable channels if they don’t have to? Life is cluttered enough.
Certainly the technology exists to accommodate a la carte packaging. But given the economic concerns the prospect of such a revolution causes cable operators and networks, perhaps a quasi-a la carte scenario is the best way to go.
Sen. John McCain made quite a cogent point when he questioned whether an 80-year-old woman who subscribes to cable should have to pay for ESPN. Plenty of people don’t watch sports or even want sports channels. And there are plenty of people who want ESPN who wouldn’t think of watching HGTV. So why not place costly sports programming onto a separate, optional-at-extra-cost tier and offer a basic lineup that includes the most popular nonsports channels, a few of newest channels, plus, say, any 10 other channels of the subscriber’s choice. That way, the subscriber is given a sense of control, new channels get a chance, the economic realities of a la carte packaging can be tested and the system can be gradually perfected. After all, it just stands to reason that a la carte is going to have to happen sooner or later.
It’s an overly simplistic solution, perhaps, given the complex dealings between cable networks and multiple system operators – a world of carriage agreements and per-subscriber fees that has only been complicated by consolidation and vertical integration . But be that as it may, the exploding cable universe is much too big to be all things to all people any more. And, many believe, way too expensive as well.
Bottom line: Allowing the customer to express more of a preference can’t be bad business.