Moving, slowly, toward a la carte cable

Cablevision's suit against Viacom is an assault on the industry's practice of forcing viewers to pay for many channels they never watch. Yet Cablevision still appears to back the 'bundling' concept.

The cable company Cablevision says it's just looking out for consumers in its lawsuit against Viacom, owner of MTV and Nickelodeon, over bundled programming packages that drive monthly bills higher.

And the company is correct — to a point.

Cable TV bundling: A column in the March 1 Business section about cable TV business practices said that AMC Networks features about a dozen cable channels. In fact, AMC Networks owns and operates four channels, along with other media businesses. —


Cablevision Systems Corp. alleges that Viacom Inc. is violating federal antitrust laws by requiring cable and satellite companies to carry less popular channels in return for paying a reasonable price for the good stuff. In other words, if a cable company wants Comedy Central at a fair price, it also has to take Teen Nick.

The lawsuit is a direct assault on an industry practice that forces the average cable or satellite subscriber to pay for dozens, possibly hundreds, of channels they may never watch. According to the ratings company Nielsen, the typical cable subscriber watches only about 17 channels on a regular basis.

"The manner in which Viacom sells its programming is illegal, anti-consumer and wrong," Cablevision said. "Viacom effectively forces Cablevision's customers to pay for and receive little-watched channels in order to get the channels they actually want."

Well, well, well. Sure sounds as if the nation's fifth-largest cable company, operating primarily on the East Coast, is saying the same thing I've been saying for years: Cable and satellite subscribers should pay only for the channels they want.

Or is it?

After the lawsuit was announced this week, I spoke with Charlie Schueler, Cablevision's executive vice president of communications. I asked what a legal win for the company would mean for Cablevision subscribers.

Would it mean lower bills? Would it mean so-called a la carte programming — that is, allowing subscribers to pick their own channel lineup from a menu of options?

"Without forced bundling," Schueler said, "cable providers could tailor smaller and lower-priced packages to specific audiences."

OK, but that basically means customers would still have to buy a package of channels, rather than pick the channels they want.

"We would offer more flexibility to customers," Schueler replied. "We would favor anything that offers broader choices and flexibility for customers."

But you're not saying the words. Will you offer a la carte programming?

"Choice and flexibility are the words I'll offer."

Cablevision's lawsuit against Viacom is a step in the right direction. Props to the company for trying to unravel the fat bundles that programmers such as Viacom, Fox and Disney force down the throats of distributors, which then pass them and the higher fees along to us.

If bundles do indeed violate antitrust law, all cable and satellite companies would be able to renegotiate their programming contracts to allow customers to pay for, say, Disney's ESPN and ditch the company's Military History channel.