Posts tagged ‘abc’

Your Cable Bill Is Going Up (and Your Choice is Going Down)

The FCC has reversed course and decided that cable companies bundling channels into packages rather than selling them a la carte is bad and requires coercive action from the government to fix.  This issue was originally pushed by religious groups, who I guess did not want signals from naughty content even accessible from their house (the "just don't watch that channel" solution presumably determined to be too difficult).  However, "progressives" on the left have latched onto this issue as well.  I remember a Kevin Drum post, which unfortunately I can find right now, advocating cable unbundling as an example of an agenda progressives should be jumping on.  Beyond the basic rationale that progressives hate cable companies almost as much as Exxon and Wal-mart so anything cable companies oppose they are for, the ostensible logic is that if I pay $50 now for 165 channels, I should only pay $10 if I choose to watch only 33 of those.  Here is their "logic":

The main obstacle for a la carte: programming contracts.
Programmers routinely bar cable operators from selling channels a la carte.

Why? Advertising rates. Cable programmers base ad rates on
the number of viewers they reach. The more they reach, the more they can charge.
If they allowed a la carte, viewership for many channels would likely

Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union says:"This is the essence
of how they squeeze extra revenues out of consumers."

The problem could worsen, he warns, as cable operators "” as
well as broadcasters and satellite TV "” pack on more channels.

"The bundles get bigger, and prices go up," Kimmelman says.
"A la carte would blow this scam out of the water."

This presumes that the number of channels has anything to do with cable cost or pricing.  Which it really doesn't, since the marginal 100 channels or so at the tail end of the viewership curve all just want to be carried for free, in hopes they can get some ad revenue from corporate America for being on the dial.   From a cost standpoint, beyond a few core channels, it costs cable companies about nothing extra, given the infrastructure of high-bandwidth delivery systems is already in place, to send you 20 channels or 150. 

Pricing, though, is not just set based on costs, but on value.  And the government is about to change the value equation, and maybe not in the consumer's failure.  Up to now, cable's value proposition has been "wide selection", a value proposition supported by the multi-channel bundle for one price.  After making this traditional value proposition illegal, there is no guarantee at all that the value proposition that replaces it will be a better, or even equivalent one.

Most consumer advocates tend to assume that bundles are hosing the customer, because they are being forced to pay for stuff they don't want.  But bundles can more often than not be the opposite - including items of value that the customer is not paying full price for.  The the evolution of cable service tends to confirm this.  Cable on a real basis does not cost that much more than it did 20 years ago when you only got 20 or so channels.  My suspicion, which I can't prove, is that you are paying for those 20-25 core channels, and everything else is a freebie.  In this model, bundling is delivering extra value over a la carte, because you really aren't paying much or anything at all for those incremental 130 channels.

In fact, in my years as a consultant looking at pricing, one of the first things we looked at in a company to increase total pricing and profits was unbundling services.  The issue of concern was that more often than not, bundling provided customers with hidden pools of value that they were not really paying for, and unbundling helped make consumers pay full price for things they were previously getting for free.  Airlines, banks, and numerous others make more money by unbundling today.  My suspicion is that this will be the case with cable.

By the way, look under the hood of any business regulation proposed as "consumer protection" and you will usually find the fingerprints of corporations trying to use the government to sit on their competition.  And yes, we have that here.  New entrants AT&T and Verizon want the government to ban the current cable companies' business model, thereby putting them on equal footing in entering the market.  By the way, speaking of these phone companies, does anyone out there really think they are getting a better deal when they pay for call waiting and answering service and long distance and local separately rather than in one of the advertised bundles?

So here are my predictions:

  • Assume an average cable bill today is $50 a month for 150 channels.  If the average person watches and really is willing to pay for 15 of those a la carte, then the new pricing is going to result in a $50 bill for those 15 channels.  Count on it.  People will be paying the same amount as before, but for fewer channels.  Or, if they want the same number of channels as before, they will be paying more
  • In one year, leftish backers of the bill will realize the above, and will publicly criticize the cable companies for their rational reaction to the coercive government program.  They will propose new pricing regulations to "fix" the problem they say stems from private enterprise, but in fact came from unintended consequences of the original regulation.  This use of negative consequences of regulation to justify further regulation is one of the most important tools in the statist's bag.
  • A number of smaller cable channels will go bust.  Even those wanting and willing to pay a la carte for the full 150 channels they got before will not be able to, because many will not exist any more.
  • Fewer niche or idiosyncratic channels will exist.  Today, cable companies want to sell the package of 150 channels.  At the margin, adding a channel that caters to a niche not reached by the other channels is better for them than adding yet another channel that caters to the median viewer, because it makes the package as a whole attractive to more viewers.  However, if every channel is sold a la carte, cable programmers will add channels and content aimed at the mass market to maximize sales of each channel.  Each channel must stand on its own. Oddball niches need not apply.  Interestingly, many of these will be things like the Gay Vegan Channel
    that tend to be particularly popular among "progressives".
  • Innovation in terms of new cable channel offerings will die, because a la carte pricing will substantially increase the cost for a new entrant to get going.  In the past, they just had to sell 2-3 cable company programming buyers that they should try the new channel in their lineup, and they were off and running.  Now, they not only have to convince cable companies to be on the menu, but have to sell consumers one by one to get into homes.  This is orders of magnitude more expensive.  The stock of current cable companies will go up, because competition will be harder.  In another ironic unintended consequence for "progressives", only large corporations will be able to start new cable channels in the future, increasing media consolidation that progressives decry.
  • In one year, religious backers of the bill will be upset that so many people still opt for naughty content, and will propose legislation to increase the difficulty in signing up for certain channels (e.g. physical presentation of proof of age) and to regulate advertisement and promotion of these channels.

Reason's Hit and Run has more along the same lines.

Postscript:  In the past, FCC and Congressional rules have actually mandated bundling.  For example, still on the books are must-carry laws that say that cable companies have to carry every local broadcast channel.  It will be interesting to see if I can opt out of ABC.  I bet I won't be able to - legislation pre-empts FCC rule-making.  Which will create an interesting discriminatory aspect to the regulation, which is that the cable companies must bundle in companies that also broadcast their content over airwaves but must unbundle non-broadcast content.  Which also leads to the irony that cable will have to include content that consumers have an alternative source for (e.g. ABC via an antenna) but have to be ready to exclude content that consumers have no alternative source for (e.g. the History Channel).

Final Thought: What's next from the FCC?  If I only listen to FM 93.3 on my radio, are radio makers going to be required to unbundle the capability to receive all those other stations to give me a radio that only gets 93.3?  And does anyone think that radio would be cheaper?

Dan Rather Replacement

Apparently, CBS is still mulling over candidates to replace Dan Rather.  Apparently, they have reduced the candidates of a "short list" of the people who might improve ratings over those garnered by Rather.  Unfortunately, this criteria has limited the list to ... just about everybody.  While this and other articles bandy about candidates, I still think my list was pretty good:

Improve ratings approach #1:  Finally get rid of the pretense that anchors are journalists rather than pretty talking heads.  Hire Nicolette Sheridan, or maybe Terri Hatcher.  Or, if you feel CBS News deserves more gravitas, in the Murrow tradition, how about Meryl Streep?

Improve ratings approach #2:  Go with comedy.  Bring in David Letterman from the Late Show to anchor the evening news.  "Tonight, we start with the growing UN oil for food scandal.  Uma - Anann.  Anann - Uma."  Or, if you want to segment the market differently, how about Tim Allen and the CBS News for Guys.  Or, if CBS wants to keep hitting the older demographic - what about Chevy Chase - certainly he already has anchor experience from SNL.

Improving Credibility Choice:  No one in the MSM really has much credibility left after the last election, but there is one man who would bring instant credibility to CBS News -- Bob Costas.  CBS should hire him away from NBC, like they did with Letterman.  Make him the evening news anchor.  Heck, if Bryant Gumbell can make the transition to the news division, certainly Costas can.

Become the acknowledged liberal counterpoint to Fox:  Hire Bill Clinton as anchor.  Nothing would generate more buzz than that hire, and he is at loose ends anyway (and think about all those wonderful business trips away from home...)  If Bill is not available, try James Carville.  I might even have to watch that.

Let the public decide:  Forget making a decision, and just create a new reality show like ESPN's Dream Job to choose the next anchor.  Each week the 12 finalists can be given a new task.  In week one, they have to pick up incriminating evidence about the President at a rodeo.  In week 2, they have to forge a believable set of documents from the early 70's, and survive criticism from about 10,000 bloggers.  They can kick one off the island each week based on the viewers votes.

CBS, and in fact all the network news programs, have a problem which caused me to rename them from the Tiffany network to "the Buick network":  Their median age news viewer was born while Hitler still ruled Germany.  As I wrote in that article,

It turns out that the network news programs have exactly the same problem, though none of them profess to be worried, despite the fact that the networks are losing share to competitors at a much faster clip than are US auto makers. reports that the median age of an ABC News viewer is about 59, of an NBC News viewer is 60 and of a CBS News viewer is over 61.  Everyone who is younger has switched to cable, switched to the Internet, or switched off altogether.

More here.

CBS News: The Buick Network?

For years, any of the network news programs would love to have been referred to as the "Cadillac" network, implying high-class quality in a similar way that the "Tiffany" Network always did.

However, it appears that NBC, ABC, and CBS news have something else in common with Buick, Cadillac and Lincoln:  Their customers base is aging. Rapidly.

The median age of the average Buick owner is 67, for Cadillac is 65 and Lincoln is 63.  Excepting Escalades and Navigators, when was the last time you saw anyone in one of these cards who did not have gray hair (and perhaps a handicapped tag)?  This aging has the auto makers panicked.  Unless it is reversed, in 20 years these brands will be history.

It turns out that the network news programs have exactly the same problem, though none of them profess to be worried, despite the fact that the networks are losing share to competitors at a much faster clip than are US auto makers. reports that the median age of an ABC News viewer is about 59, of an NBC News viewer is 60 and of a CBS News viewer is over 61.  Everyone who is younger has switched to cable, switched to the Internet, or switched off altogether.

In some sense, the network news problem is worse than the auto makers'.  If the auto makers can find compelling new designs to appeal to younger folks, younger buyers will come back - the brands are tarnished, but the basic business model is OK.  In the case of the networks, not only are their brands tarnished, but it is not clear that the business model of 30 minute evening news broadcasts can ever be revived in the face of a huge proliferation in news sources.

But, it is still entertaining to see who will replace the current anchors, the single best tool the networks have to reposition their broadcasts.  I wrote about Dan Rather's potential replacements here.


What is it about the previous generations and the number 3?  Three big networks, three major automakers, Avis-Hertz-National, McDonalds-Burger King-Wendy's, etc.  Has there been a technology change to break up these oligarchies and provide more choices, or was there an inability by a couple of generations overwhelmed with change to digest more than 3 choices?  Update to the Update:  Virginia Postrel actually has a related post here about choice.