U.S. Senator John McCain working on bill to allow à la carte cable TV, end sports blackouts

“Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is working on legislation that would pressure cable and satellite TV providers to allow their customers to pick and choose the channels they pay for, his office confirmed on Wednesday,” Brendan Sasso reports for The Hill.

“Consumers have long complained about the rising costs of cable TV packages and having to pay for dozens or even hundreds of channels just to gain access to the few that they watch.
But McCain’s legislation, which he is expected to introduce in the coming days, will likely face furious opposition from both the TV broadcasters and cable providers,” Sasso reports. “In addition to pressuring cable providers to offer channels pressuring cable providers to offer channels à la carte, McCain’s new bill would bar TV networks from bundling their broadcast stations with cable channels they own during negotiations with the cable companies, according to industry sources. So for example, the Disney Company, which owns both ABC and ESPN, could not force a cable provider to pay for ESPN in order to carry ABC.”

Sasso reports, “The industry officials said the bill would also end the sports blackout rule, which prohibits cable companies from carrying a sports event if the game is blacked out on local broadcast television stations… The rule is meant to encourage fans to buy tickets to see the game live.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Like most everyone, we’d love à la carte cable TV provided the menu remained the same or got better. But, that’s an impossibility, as true à la carte choice at the channel level would obliterate the menu.

What would happen if we had true à la carte cable TV channels? Back to thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from, if we’re even lucky enough to end up with that many, and/or those thirteen channels plus a selection of very highly-priced “niche” choices.

Just look at the ratings to see exactly which programming à la carte channels would support and what would die or become high-priced extravagances.

The Honey Boo Boos of the world would proliferate. Singing and dancing contests. Big-time sports, but not niche sports. Washed up celebrities kissing Donald Trump’s ass for some attention, etc. Anything remotely thought-provoking would die due to lack of funding or would have to be subsidized in some way. (Don’t get any ideas, government! Sadly, we bet they already have gotten them.) Right now, in the U.S. we subsidize higher quality niche programming via our cable bills. We pay for cable service, not à la carte channels (or, to take this to its logical conclusion, à la carte programs).

How do you go pure à la carte at the channel level and not destroy everything but the lowest common denominator programming and/or create a class of super expensive quality “channels” or programs?

What would happen if, instead of à la carte “channels,” we could purchase “television” as Apple’s iTunes Store already allows: Pay only for the programs we want to watch, regardless of “channel?” Channels might go the way of the dodo, but that wouldn’t matter. (Some people are already “watching TV” via iTunes Store – paying only for what they want, with no commercials, for a fraction of the cost of cable. Others use iPad apps (ABC, CBS, NBC, Discovery, etc.) to watch the programs they want, but pay with a bit of their time by having commercials play – although far fewer than are found on regular TV.)

“Channels” are an anachronism. Just look at what has become of the network channels on Friday nights, for example. They can no longer profitably fill all of their time slots without resorting to repeats or cheaply-produced junk. Freeing companies from having to focus on programming channels, a concept left over from the analog days, an allowing them to focus on individual programs just might usher in a new golden age of “TV.” The more “Losts” and “Seinfelds” and “Mad Men” you make, the more money you rake in. Most of the effort would then be directed to the programs (and marketing them) instead of the “channel” (network programming, branding, promotion, etc.).

Think of music: The episodes are the songs; the TV series themselves are both the albums and the artist; and the channels are the music labels. Nobody cares what the music label is as long as the recording is quality. Yet, TV is still ordered mainly by channels. Do you listen to your music by music label or by artist?

Here’s an interesting one: The Weather Channel. It could go from trying to fill the time with weather-related programs mixed with a rotation of national and local weather — low-rated fare unless there is a “weather event” — to selling you your local forecast, forecasts for where you’re going for work or vacation, and “weather event” coverage. Maybe that would be more profitable to sell the weather that way than the way they do now? They’re so desperate right now, they’ve resorted to making up names for snowstorms as if they’re hurricanes in order to manufacture “weather events!”

Anyway, back to “regular” TV: If we had the ability to choose à la carte at the program level, would the economics support a vibrant choice of programming, maybe even more vibrant than we have now? Would the programs be commercial-free or would they still need some level of advertising support? We don’t know the answer to the economics, but maybe, before he left us, Steve Jobs did and it’s part of what he “cracked” about “television?”

Obviously, this is a 55-gallon drum full of worms, so there are myriad questions. What happens to TV “news,” both national and local? What happens to local channels themselves? What happens to commercials? What about program discovery? What about live TV? What about program length when they no longer have to be able to fit into neat blocks of time to fill daily schedules?

Bottom line: Perhaps Senator McCain should focus on à la carte programming, not à la carte channels? Or, better yet, let the market figure it out? Things are finally moving forward in TV land now, why risk destroying quality niche channels with legislation and the unintended consequences it’s likely to bring?


    1. Did you read MDN’s Take? If it happens at the channel level, as McCain seems to be proposing, you might not like the results. You may find yourself with very little to choose from.

        1. McCain is an imbecile. As much as I want to choose when and where and what I want to watch I resent government mandating this. I prefer companies offering this type of viewing because it will generate consumer interest and profits for the companies. Once government gets involved all hell breaks loose with cronyism, unethical deals, and all other sorts of malfeasance. Plus, one has to deals with the hiring of new federal workers to monitor the shenanigans which means more of your money is squandered. Send McCain back the nursing home for his daily enema.

          1. Your right, you just don’t know.

            Who cares what member of either party proposes legislation.

            What matters is a la carte choice and breaking the monopolistic stranglehold of high-cost bundling strategies you do not need.

            Are you listening Adobe?

      1. I mean that many channels that have some class and taste only get views because they go along with more popular channels in one package.

        If you separate the package, then people will only subscribe to the very minimum of channels. Classier channels will not even have a chance to get the views. Only Honey Boo Boo will survive, which is scarier than living dead coming to real life and Antichrist ending the world, combined.

    2. No one really wants channels. We want programs and content. Ads should pay for the making of and distribution of each show and stop putting on subpar filler shows.

      Good shows command greater ad revenue and poorer shows get the local ads to pay for them.

          1. How nice.

            You don’t approve of a clever joke and recommend violence and suicide.

            And your hatred for the NRA is duly noted.

            What an enlightened person you are. Tell Mom what you said today.

            1. What is clever about stupid? The alleged Obama Phone doesn’t exist. Low-income households have been eligible for discounted telephone service since the Reagan Administration. But the program is administered by telecom companies, which receive subsidies to offset part of the cost. They recoup the rest by inflating your phone bill. The free market at work.

              Pejorative bullshit remains bullshit, no matter how many times it is repeated on Fox News. And it’s never clever.

            2. “What is clever about stupid?”

              The clever part is relating the Obama phone minions in the media to another level and making light of it in a different context. Lighten up, it’s a joke.

              “The alleged Obama Phone doesn’t exist. Low-income households have been eligible for discounted telephone service since the Reagan Administration.”

              So all those people on Fox News, et al were lying on camera and phone subsidies stopped during the current administration ending a program active during the Reagan era?

              “Pejorative bullshit remains bullshit, no matter how many times it is repeated …”

              Yeah, I know what you mean.

            3. re “Lighten up, it’s a joke.” about botvijerk’s remark…

              It wasn’t a “joke”. It was botvijerk turning almost EVERYTHING into a launching point for some putrid, small-minded POLITICAL comment.

        1. I have no idea of what you are writing about. There is no free lunch. My time is worth something and advertisers know this. It is the cable companies who have decided to rip us off by double billing for ‘service’ and content.

            1. I have not used cable for about 17 years. Who best fits the name you tried to label me with? When you don’t see the big picture, you get tied up in minutia and show how much you really understand.

            2. then STFU. Private companies are free to charge what they want as consumers are free to spend where they want. Your “Big Picture” is the false economics coloring book drawn by your master, The State.

            3. They said Apple couldn’t do it with music and are now saying that Apple can’t do it with television. Remind me, which state is Apple again? Oh yeah, they are a private company that turns industries upside down and makes them user friendlily. What name do you call someone who doesn’t know that it can be done?

        1. You obviously don’t understand that channels can be simply play lists and you really only want to watch what you want and cannot possibly watch more than one program at a time therefore, you really want shows and not channels.

            1. After it comes along and you stop complaining and understand it, you also will grow to love having what you want to watch when you want to watch it and paid for by relevant to you commercials or credit card for a lower rate than what you pay today. In the mean time, all the best from a blockhead of the future.

    3. Bravo, indeed!

      The iTunes model of paying per show, or is it series, will create a complex viewing/paying model for everything I’m interested in …

  1. Don’t get me Wrong, I love this legislation. Cable companies will push hard against it because they KNOW that satellite has very limited bandwidth. Dish network has been pushing for this legislation for years. Let’s support the satellite companies in this.

    1. Dish Network is pushing this legislation because it can’t get sports packages, channel packages, etc. that DirecTV can. So it’s only method of “competing” with DirecTV is to force a legislative change, not to actually offer to pay the NFL more than DirecTV for the NFL Sunday Ticket, for example.

      1. Why should one company have to pay MORE than the next to give consumers what they want? Why can’t the NFL license the content to both of them? For years Direct TV has had a stranglehold on the NFL network, package and red zone channel. Only recently did cable get the NFL network and red zone. The package remains Direct TV only.

        I live out of market for my favorite team (as many fans do) I want to pay to watch them, however I refuse to be dictated to in regards to my provider. Direct TV works like crap where I am, it costs more for the same programming I already have even before paying for additional sports packages. I refuse to switch to Verizon and Direct TV for package and mobile programing. I would use both services if I had a choice in the delivery company. Sadly the NFL wants to dictate it to me, so they miss out on my money.

        I actual welcome McCain going after this crap. In regards to the blackout, I have a sterling example: The Chicago Blackhawks.

        Less than a decade ago, it was hard to catch a game on TV because old-man wirtz loved the blackout rules. No one was going to watch the poor product they were putting on the ice, and he refused to spend to fix it because they were not selling seats. Then he died. HIs son took over, they started spending, the put a good product on the ice, he dumped the blackout policy. Guess what, being exposed on tv re-ignited and grew the fan base. The hawks are back to selling out the arena, they have won a Stanley cup and may well win it again this year.

        In short: Blackout rules suck, they are anti-fanbase and counterproductive. It is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  2. Idiotic!!!
    We need government to do the opposite. Do not interfere. We’ll only be regretting it later. Government intervention will never create the innovation that will take us forward. Government needs to stay out of the business of picking winners and losers – any time they do, we all lose!

  3. Maybe we could have some quality programming and there would be true competition, and actors would have to compete for job both on talent and pay scale. Lets see them live on what us regular folks who have to work extra to subsidize crap live on.

  4. Legislative theory never comes close to matching legislative reality. The latter is usually quite bloated with special interest manipulation and a mere shadow of its original intent.

      1. Which part of “Perhaps Senator McCain should focus on à la carte programming, not à la carte channels? Or, better yet, let the market figure it out? Things are finally moving forward in TV land now, why risk destroying quality niche channels with legislation and the unintended consequences it’s likely to bring?” didn’t you understand?

  5. My friends, I look upon this situation and think how grateful I am for Obama’s victory in 2008. Otherwise, instead of occupying his time with senate legislation, we might be occupying Syria right now after President McCain ordered up another invasion.

    Now rather than nation building in the desert he can only bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Comcast.

  6. about time.

    must be a signal that McCain is finally going to retire and pull up a chair in front of the lowest-common-denominator advertisement machine.

    The MDN take is completely wrong. singing and dancing contests, lousy game shows, and scripted “reality” with poor/amateur actors are what we have today on paid TV because there is no real competition between media providers. Each has a monopoly in its niche, and consumer price is not negotiable nor competitively offered.

    But people _are_ willing to pay a fair price for quality programming — that’s how iTunes works, after all. Problem is, new high-quality video productions are increasingly rare. Audio, thankfully, still includes some real talent to offset the corporate-preened computerized teeny boppers & (c)rap hooligans whose only talent is a hired choreographer and the best post-production that money can buy, with PCs and Macs with pitch correction to fix all their $hitty tracks.

    TV channels, however, are not obsolete because iTunes does the same thing with Podcasts and iTunes U. When a person enjoys a series, one often wants to buy/rent the whole series and/or similar programming. Apple also brought back album purchases to iTunes for the same reason — not all buyers prefer A-L-C for all media.

    So if Turner Classic Movies has spend billions of dollars restoring classic cinema and consumers want to subscribe to its “channel” / “videocast”, then why not allow that option? If competition is allowed (unlike today), then the market will decide if it works or not. For one thing, it would give studios a bit more predictability in budgets, which is one of many essential ingredients for new quality productions.

    1. Completely wrong. There is a great deal of competition — for advertising dollars. The more people who watch your shows, the more you can charge per ad space.

      Plus, networks and content providers bid all the time for shows they want to air. NBC doesn’t make Law & Order, a production company makes the show and sells it to NBC so NBC can air it.

      1. We are not discussing the competition for ad space, that’s a separate issue altogether.

        Where have you offered any data or analysis to show I am “completely wrong” that channels are not obsolete? Media outlets — you know, the outfits that end customers have to deal with — are practically regional monopolies with no requirement to un-bundle the crap they choose to offer, nor offer competitive pricing.

        A step in the right direction would be to force media outlets to un-bundle channels. Ideally, the bill would go even further to force media creators to offer their wares through at least three different outlets in each regional market, where possible (air broadcast, cable, satellite, internet, or pre-recorded media like DVD/Blu-Ray being typical choices).

        This would enable real competition in many markets, especially since the internet would be likely to serve a-la-carte options, making the other formats improve their pricing and options.

        Real consumer choice by un-bundling would also eliminate much of the fluff programming that nobody watches, even if there are advertisers dumb enough to fund brainless shows. The intelligent consumer is happy to reward those media creators that do offer excellent / popular programs, either a-l-c or via channel/seasonal/series-based videocast purchase/subscription, just as they do on iTunes today.

        With any luck, then instead of supporting all the crappy SPEED channel fluff, one could just purchase this year’s World Rally Championship season. Or maybe one could purchase just the NFL games of their favorite team instead of being forced to buy the @#$%^& golf channel. But other customers will prefer to buy the whole channel of programming — you get the point, the end customer needs better choices.

  7. MDN’s take is wrong.

    In this day and age, why do we even need “channels” for content? We should be able to subscribe to the shows that we want to see. Even buy shows directly from the producers.

    By allowing people to pay for the shows that want to see, the free market will determine which shows get produced. Sorry, but shows that no one wants will vanish. Good riddance to them.

    Sorry, MDN is living in a bygone era…

  8. MDN’s take is bizarrely wrong, given that it’s own argument would explain WHY it’s wrong.

    The reason that Honey Boo Boo and Trump’s shite are garnering ratings is precisely because they’re bundled in. nobody is going to pay for an entire channel just to get Honey Boo Boo.

    But people will pay for a channel to get Mad Men, Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, etc., because they are quality TV and you get your money’s worth.

    Look at Netflix’s recent maneuvering. They’re morphing into the first channel that is independent of any cable distributor. If you think of Netflix as a channel you purchase wherein you get original programming such as House of Cards and Arrested Development, it makes more sense.

  9. I mostly agree with MDN.

    At issue here isn’t Netflix or Apple TV or anything else.

    What’s at issue here are two things that affect broadcast television over cable. The one is sports, which is simple enough… nobody wants it except those with a financial stake in attendance over viewers.

    The other has to do with television bundling which most people don’t clearly understand. Most people say they want a small number of stations, but in reality end up watching more. They look at their bill and complain that they’re paying way more than they want to and question why they have to pay for a bazillion channels…sometimes hundreds in languages they don’t speak and resolutions they don’t have equipment for.

    The problem is that (again we’re only talking about broadcast over cable) if you take away the bundling, you’d end up paying (on average) the same (if not more) for your small selection of channels.

    It’s not like as if you only watch 10 channels but receive 1,000 that your new unbundled bill is going to be 1/100th of what it was. Instead you’re going to pay about the same amount for only those 10 channels.

    This really is the best model for broadcast cable.

    However, again, this doesn’t apply to on-demand viewing from Apple TV, Netflix, or even your cable company. On demand viewing can have whatever rules and interactive subscribing that can be created, whether it’s by buying a single episode, buying a season, buying a series, subscribing to a channel, or subscribing to a set of tv and movie programming. Heck, there’s even user-generated programming and the ability for small studio programming.

    1. You are somewhat incorrect about sports blackouts. Those are blackouts required by the leagues themselves if a sellout is not achieved. It affects broadcast (over-the-air), cable, and satellite alike. So the rule is really just making cable companies consistent with broadcast licensing from the sports league.

  10. I have to agree somewhat with MDN take on this, as much as I am not a fan of how cable companies offer things I think this would mean the death of some smaller channels that are only offered because they are packaged with larger channels. If you really want to improve consumer choice and price you need to ban the regional exclusivity deals. The fact that in many places there is only one choice for cable, that is what is limiting consumer choice. Also a bill requiring a high enough minimum broadband speed to lift us from being a 3rd world country in internet speed would also help more than this bill.

  11. This is a horribly misguided piece of legislation by McCain. It will be a logistical nightmare for cable companies to manage which channels each house receives — I seriously doubt the current set top boxes are able to handle anything like ordering channels, and thus all those subscribers will need new boxes (likely at a cost).

    Second, it will cost people far more to buy channels individually than it does now to buy them in a bundle. The reason we have so many channels is because the larger channels can essentially subsidize the cost of the lesser viewed ones, but the providers receive more ad revenue by having multiple channels viewed with access to more households.

    1. Actually, the equipment already supports it. I had gone a-la-carte with charter, direcTV, and Dish Network. They don’t like it but when challenged with no service or just local and 10 others, they make exceptions. Lately they do t seem to want to do it anymore but 10 years ago I was doing it.

    2. “It will be a logistical nightmare for cable companies to manage which channels each house receives …”

      Oh, so sorry, cable millionares have to show up for work today.

      Hard to believe technology cannot accommodate consumer choice. Pay for view works well and I’m certain technology will only advance.

      It will be a logistical nightmare for me to wake up every morning, scan TV guides and pick and pay for shows I want to watch that day, next day and next week on thousands of channels. Paying for a handful of favorite channels makes more sense, in IMHO.

      When I subscribe to a favorite magazine, who knows in the months ahead what articles are forthcoming that I may or may not be interested in, much like programming — it goes with the territory.

      Bundle BS. iTunes knocked that album out of the park over a decade ago.

      ‘The lesser viewed ones’ is of little concern to the average viewer that never spent a second on the channel. But in the spirit of small business, hope they do well.

      Metaphorically speaking, whether the bill is the cure or the disease — the patient is in the hospital.

      Stay tuned. 🙂

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