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Is ‘a la carte’ cable a good idea?

Choosing your own channels could save money, but could also limit diversity
/ Source: The Associated Press

For cable subscribers, “a la carte” sounds appetizing: Pick the channels you want and pay only for them. Spare your family from networks you never watch and don’t want your kids exposed to. And save money in the process.

There’s gung-ho talk about a la carte pricing for cable TV service, much of it from the Federal Communications Commission as well as from Capitol Hill.

But I’m not convinced.

For starters, I’m suspicious about that term. A la carte — sounds mighty French, doesn’t it?

Besides, I’m happy with the current plan. You subscribe to a tier of cable or satellite service, then get a bundle of channels. The more you pay, the wider the selection of channels you can flip through from your La-Z-Boy.

A la carte? Mais non! I want cable to stay the way it is: as American as a salad bar. And I don’t mean the kind where they weigh your plate. Call it Freedom Vision! Build your own salad, all you can eat. Pay one price. Then go back for more!

In fact, when I settle down for TV-watching, I picture a vast salad bar beneath the Plexiglas sneezeguard — so many channels to choose from, in any combination and quantity I wish.

The tabbouleh of television
There are standard items like the TV equivalent of lettuce, shredded cheese and bacon bits. Maybe I’m in the mood for cole slaw or tabbouleh. Maybe Jell-O with fruit. Maybe I’ll try something exotic I don’t even recognize. And if I don’t feel like anchovies or pickled beets, I’ll just pass them by. Maybe some other time.

The bounty of the salad bar apparently rubs some observers the wrong way.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is pushing a la carte as a weeding-out process for parents who are worried about what their children might see.

Of course, a decade ago the FCC championed sex-and-violence guidelines for TV indecency that, used in conjunction with V-chip technology, let parents block any show carrying a rating they objected to. It proved a huge inconvenience and remains a huge flop. So how vigilant are parents likely to be now in identifying family-friendly channels to subscribe to, then monitoring their content to make sure they live up to their claims?

The other major argument raised for a la carte: It will save you money. Despite getting (and paying for) scores of channels, the average household tunes to only 17. By hand-picking those channels, a subscriber could trim his cable bill by as much as 13 percent.

At least, those are findings from a recent FCC report, which contradicts an earlier study that declared a la carte pricing would likely drive up cable costs. But while acknowledging research errors in its 2004 study, the consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton stands by its conclusions.

In particular, it cautions that, with a la carte, “diversity would suffer. A significant number of cable networks, including those that offer innovative and untested formats, will be forced out of business before they have a chance to build the audience they need to become profitable.”

I’m reminded of a professor who forcefully discounted the old saying, “I know what I like.” Her retort: “You like what you know.”

Finding the hidden jewelsEchoing that sentiment in TV terms is Geraldine Laybourne, who, as head of Oxygen Media, is one of several cable network bosses who have spoken out against the a la carte plan.

“TV viewers,” she said in a recent statement, “often don’t know what they want to watch until it’s there for them as an option.”

Viewers may indeed concentrate on only 17 channels. But over time that 17 could vary. Viewers’ tastes change and what they choose to watch can reflect that, if the options are there.

I, who had no interest in AMC for its movies, was snagged in January by its charming new caper drama “Hustle.” Every now and then G4 (Video Game Television) catches my eye, and I’m not even a gamer. After sampling Current TV, the youth-oriented news-features network, I find I’m defaulting to it the way I used to gravitate to CNN.

And I haven’t mentioned my 11-year-old, who has kicked his Nickelodeon habit in favor of watching basketball and “The Simpsons.”

In a media world that’s a little too targeted and partitioned for my taste, I think there’s value in breaking out of the rut; in indulging a whim or just stumbling across something you would never have thought to watch. Serendipity TV.

Sure, a la carte holds out the dual promises of saving you money and preserving your children’s virtue. Sounds great. Everyone knows cable rates are too high and forever getting higher. And no one wants kids watching trashy TV. But would a la carte make a dent in either problem?

Not likely. I just think it could reduce viewing choices to a short-order menu’s dimensions. I prefer (pardon my French) a buffet.