Advocates Of A La Carte Mandates Misunderstand Infinite Goods
from the bundling dept
Some minority organizations are making the case that a la carte mandates would destroy the market for niche channels. They point out that the market for minority programming like BET and Univision is relatively small, so they (and minority viewers) benefit from being able to tag along with channels that have broader interest. FCC chairman Kevin Martin disagrees, saying that "if a cable operator only wants to carry one channel, it should not be required to buy 10 or 20 channels in order to do so." Martin seems to be thinking of cable channels as tangible products like cars or toasters: if people are only "required" to buy the channels they really want, they'll save money because they won't be "forced" to waste money on other channels they're not interested in. But this argument ignores the fact that television content is an infinite good. The costs of delivering cable content is almost all fixed; once coax has been run to a customer's house, it costs almost exactly the same to provide a given customer with every channel on the cable network or with only one channel. As a result, bundling is economically efficient: throwing in additional channels increases the value of the cable service without imposing any extra costs on the system.
People imagine that an a la carte mandate would mean that if they're currently paying $50 per month for 50 channels, then they should be able to pay $1 per month for one channel. But that doesn't make any sense. Switching a given customer from 50 channels to 1 channel doesn't reduce costs (the other 49 channels would presumably still be produced for other viewers), so why should the customer expect a lower bill? If anything a switch to a la carte actually makes things more expensive because in some cases cable companies have to install new equipment and set up a more complicated ordering and billing system to keep track of who had signed up for which channels. In reality, what would happen is that the cost of each channel would go up a lot. Instead of $1/channel, cable companies might charge something like $8/channel, with each customer choosing 6 channels on average. The result would be that most people would pay about the same for a lot fewer channels.
It's a mistake to think of bundling as being "forced" to pay for channels we don't want. After all, non-sports fans don't get outraged about the fact that they're "forced" to take the sports section with their morning paper. The right way to think about it is that you're paying for the parts of the bundle that interest you, and the rest of the paper is a freebie that doesn't cost you anything extra. It would be silly to demand that newspapers price each section of their paper separately and let you do without the sections you don't want. It's equally silly to demand that cable companies not show you channels you're not interested in watching, since those aren't costing you anything either.