Even if you only want to watch a few cable television channels, you have to pay for a bunch you don’t. That’s the economic model for the industry – and absent any real competition, it has served cable providers and the networks very well.

Now there is competition from streaming services, as well as widespread recognition that the cable TV model is unfair and unnecessarily expensive. Still, the industry is resisting change. In an era of great disruption in how entertainment is consumed, it may soon regret not giving consumers what they want.

A first-in-the-nation law passed by the Maine Legislature earlier this year is aimed at pushing cable TV in the right direction for the people at home. The law says cable providers must offer channels on an à la carte basis, allowing customers to pick and pay for only the ones they want.

Comcast and nine cable broadcasters, including Disney and Fox Cable, are fighting the law in federal court, just as industry members have fought similar proposals throughout the country.

Cable lobbyists say the law infringes on the industry’s First Amendment right to offer channel packages as they see fit.

They also say the law would limit choices and increase prices as people refuse to pay for less-popular channels, causing those channels to fold. It would “upend the economics of the industry,” a Comcast lawyer told a federal judge last week.

The First Amendment argument is bogus. There is no free speech protection for forcing people to buy ESPN when they never watch sports, or to spend $80 a month whether they watch five channels or 80.

As for upending the industry’s economics, perhaps Comcast should take a look around the media landscape. Consumers comfortable using streaming platforms can already subscribe to standalone services such as the one offered by CBS to access the content of a single channel or small grouping of channels. Disney is preparing to launch soon its own streaming service containing most of its properties.

Amazon now offers an à la carte TV streaming service. Even Spectrum, Comcast’s main competitor who also lobbied against the Maine bill, offers a limited à la carte package; of course, cable companies forever have offered premium channels like HBO for an extra fee.

And that says nothing of all the content that can now be purchased on a per-episode basis.

It’s not that the cable TV providers can’t offer à la carte packages, it’s that they don’t want to, on a widespread basis anyway. Spectrum’s à la carte is aimed at cable “cord-cutters,” the increasing number of people who are opting for streaming over cable – it’s a sign perhaps that the company is cutting deals to hold on to streaming-savvy consumers while leaving others to pay for channels they don’t want.

That can only work in the short term. All consumers prefer to have à la carte channel options, but none more than those in the younger age brackets. Cable companies should give them what they want, or prepare to lose them to their new competitors.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.