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. MDN, I would gladly pay per channel, but there is no way I would pay per show. I am fine with commercials to cover the costs of the shows as they do now and for my monthly fee to cover access costs to the cable providers for delivering the chandles I want so long as they aren’t so expensive that they cost considerably more to pay a-la-carte for all the channels in a current package. A little more is okay, discounting on bundles makes sense. But if a-la-carte purchase of the 20 channels I actually watch costs as much as the 200 that I receive then the system would still be flawed.

  2. I’m in favor of the desired outcome. I just don’t think it will work. A law will stultify the industry and we’ll be left with nothing or such a degraded and expensive system it will be unaffordable. The internet, if left alone, and improvements in broadband are bringing alá carte in due time. Patience, folks.

  3. “They” are going to get our money one way or another. No matter what is changed, nothing will change ultimately. The big studios, Netflix, cable companies, satellite TV, Apple and anyone else who will be involved in delivery in the future are not going to let us have what we want for $25/month. That isn’t going to happen. Just like LED lightbulbs ultimately won’t save us any money. Only energy. Once everyone has switched over to LED lightbulbs (and that will certainly be a number of years in the future) revenue for the utilities will decrease appreciably. So what happens? They simply increase the cost of a k/w hour. They are raising the gas tax in California because revenue is down. So you buy a more economical car to save on gas and you end up paying the same thing when they raise the taxes. While we will save energy (LED lamps)and natural resources (gas) it will still cost us just as much in greenbacks. I don’t expect to save money in the future I just want a better user experience which I still believe will come from Apple. I may be in the minority but I still think some form of Apple iTV is coming. And that is separate, although it may be in conjunction, with media delivery by Apple. And by the way, compact fluorescent lamps have mercury in them. Good old incandescent lamps, have no mercury.

  4. The main reason I generally support Republicans is if they understand business, then they should affect it for the good in a win/win situation.

    John McCain is not a business man. That doesn’t mean he is not entitled to try to shape what he thinks is right, but he is out of his league here, looking for some voter glee, and should stick to subjects he has a better understanding for…..or maybe just retire.

  5. I would be perfectly happy with getting just the channels I know I would watch and pay much less for them. I don’t like any of the pay per view channels as I can rent the movies or watch them on Netflix already. I don’t need the fancy HBO, Stars and such because again I can get that by renting, iTunes, or Netflix. Don’t like any of the shopping channels any of the religious channels, and the only sports channel worth getting is Speed channel.

  6. Great. So recent headlines point out how people are ‘cutting the cable’ after DECADES of customers demanding that cable get real and offer a la carte programming. And NOW the US Senate gets the clue that it’s a good idea. TechTardiness is rampant.

    1. “… after DECADES of customers demanding that cable get real and offer a la carte programming. And NOW the US Senate gets the clue …”

      Well, better late than never. 🙂

  7. TV is a joke anyway, what people should do is just cancel service and use iTunes/Netflix etc… send the TV industry a message they will understand by hitting them where it counts.

      1. In the Boston market, an OVA antenna will bring in _more_ local channels than are offered in _any_ cable/satellite package, and I thought, back when times were golden, that the basic rules of cable access were to provide _all_ the local channels in order to keep their license. Those days are over….

          1. Another bad acronym.

            He means an antenna that receives Over-the-Air broadcasts — but he didn’t think it through; “OVA” adds no meaning whatsoever; the reality is that _all_ antennas are designed to receive broadcast transmissions of one kind or another.

  8. Legislation should be passed for any issue which poses a public concern, and the public cannot address it themselves. This type of legislation does neither.

  9. Awesome idea. Why should consumers allow themselfs to be ripped off so that cable excutives
    and their shareholders can run laughing to the bank and allowed to waste their money on expensive yatches, cars, homes, and fancy trips.

  10. Channels were always a function of limited bandwidth and access. Programming has always been revenue developing entertainment. The channels needed to be controlled because there was only so much room for so many. And, yeah, these days, that is effectively no longer true- IP addresses are channels, and there are millions of them. So the real model is back to the basic patronage system. You like something, you pay for it. You can even do it yourself. News is another facet, being the fifth estate, except these days, the rent is overdue and the squatters ain’t leaving.

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