Thanks To Crappy Cable Channel Bundles, Non-Watchers Hugely Subsidize Tucker Carlson And Fox News

from the fossilized-business-models dept

We’ve talked about the problem with bloated, expensive cable TV channel bundles for a long time. You might recall the push for “a la carte” TV channels (being able to buy cable TV channels individually) was even a pet project of the late John McCain, though his legislative efforts on that front never really went anywhere. And while the rise of streaming competition helped mitigate the problem somewhat, the tactic of forcing US cable TV consumers to buy massive bundles filled with channels they don’t watch remains a very real annoyance.

The latest case in point: many folks are realizing that the attempt to drive advertisers away from white supremacy apologists like Tucker Carlson aren’t really working, in part thanks to the traditional cable TV bundle. In short, because Fox News is included in most cable TV lineups, millions of Americans are throwing money at Fox News despite never watching the channel:

I spent much of February talking to as many media scholars as I could for a piece trying to find a solution for the Fox News disinformation problem. The reality is there are very few policy proposals that wouldn’t run afoul of the First Amendment, especially with a rightward-lurching Supreme Court. One that might actually help work remains pushing actively to eliminate the bloated cable TV bundle:

“You?d kill those stations in a heartbeat if they didn?t get bundled in every cable package,? said Christopher Terry, assistant professor of media law at the University of Minnesota. ?All of those outlets thrive in the delivery to the audience they get by being included in every package, but in an a la carte cable package, only a handful of the true believer crowd would be willing to pay extra for them.”

?Imagine if they had to survive in an actual market-based scenario where the number of viewers they could have was limited by the people who would pay to have access to that specific content,? he added. ?You?d cut them off at the knees and use their own rhetoric to do so while making cable companies more accountable to the local customer base.”

Actually competing for attention, imagine that! Again, this was something that was supposed to be addressed by market forces via the streaming revolution, though many of the same failures in traditional cable simply wandered over to the streaming sector (not surprising since the same broadcasters and telecom giants dominated both arenas). And while streaming does provide greater choice, cable TV remains the dominant platform. As a result, Fox News still hauls in massive subsidies from a dated business model that involves tens of millions of Americans paying for a channel they never watch:

“Fox News makes $1.8 billion from the carriage fees it charges cable TV providers to include the channel in bloated, increasingly expensive cable TV bundles. But just 3 million of the nation?s 90 million cable TV subscribers actively watch the channel. In other words, 87 million Americans pay their cable company for and thus subsidize Fox News?despite rarely if ever actually watching the channel.”

“According to a survey conducted late last year, about 14% of cable TV subscribers watch Fox News regularly. But every cable TV subscriber pays an average of $1.72 a month to receive Fox News. In contrast, 31% of cable TV subscribers regularly watch FX (owned by Disney) but the channel adds just $0.81 to an average cable bill.

Judd Legum recently crunched the numbers further, showing how a lot of Fox News’ income comes utterly unearned, from people who may have zero interest in the racist tirades of a frozen TV dinner empire heir:

“According to a survey conducted late last year, about 14% of cable TV subscribers watch Fox News regularly. But every cable TV subscriber pays an average of $1.72 a month to receive Fox News. In contrast, 31% of cable TV subscribers regularly watch FX (owned by Disney) but the channel adds just $0.81 to an average cable bill.

This means, for every actual viewer, Fox News receives a $7.75 subsidy from people who never watch Fox News. This is a higher subsidy than other non-sports channels, like FX ($1.79), CNN ($3.18), and TBS ($2.79), receive. And none of those channels regularly spreads white nationalist talking points to millions of viewers.”

But again, as John McCain showed, breaking this logjam is easier said than done. Maine, for example, recently tried to pass a law forcing cable giants to sell channels individually, but found itself quickly sued by Comcast, which claimed the law violated the company’s free speech rights (Comcast’s winning that battle so far). The cable and broadcast industry has lobbied relentlessly to ensure this shift to individual channels never happens, claiming that moving to an a la carte model would kill niche channels and raise consumer prices (both things that repeatedly happened anyway).

Granted this isn’t just about not liking the channel or disagreeing with the channels politics. There’s clear evidence, especially on the COVID front, that the bullshit pouring out of the Rupert Murdoch empire is actively harming human health:

“A media watchdog found over 250 cases of COVID-19 misinformation on Fox News in just one five-day period, and economists demonstrated that Fox News had a demonstrable impact on non-compliance with public health guidelines,? the lawmakers wrote.”

If you can’t rely on the wisdom of the courts, free market competition, or regulators to disrupt the Fox News disinformation parade, that leaves activists like Media Matters, which have increasingly been trying to target the problem with it’s Unfox My Cable Box campaign. But even if we’re to simply wait for the purely organic death of the traditional cable TV channel bundle at the hands of the streaming television and pissed consumers, it’s not entirely clear, based on the popularity of many bigoted influencers, that dangerous dipshittery won’t just find a new form to inhabit.

Bullshit is more profitable than truth under the engagement-driven, ad-based business models we’re building, and that’s simply a fact. Policies that change this reality won’t be easy to come by. The world’s top media policy experts are glacially pondering practical solutions to the toxic sludge of disinformation pouring out of the face of trolls like Tucker Carlson, but you may want to go read a book, because it’s gonna be a long wait.

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Comments on “Thanks To Crappy Cable Channel Bundles, Non-Watchers Hugely Subsidize Tucker Carlson And Fox News”

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54 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Fox News and Disney (especially ESPN, but not exclusively) are two of the biggest reasons I haven’t had cable since the 90s.

I’m a strange case of cord cutter. I didn’t leave because other options were available, I left because ‘Fuck them, that’s why.’

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The person you’re responding to did choose not to pay for them "in the Cable space". Sure, it involved canceling cable altogether, but lots of people are happily doing that. Only occasionally is this choice unavailable (e.g., some condominiums include cable TV in their fees—I cross those off my list so as to avoid giving the MPAA money).

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Thad (profile) says:

Re: Disgusting attack.

That’s weird. You don’t seem to have had a problem with political stories on Techdirt when they weren’t criticizing popular white supremacist TV programming.

What is it, precisely, about Tucker Carlson that incenses you enough to break eight years of silence to tut-tut about how Techdirt’s not supposed to be about politics, it’s supposed to be publishing neutral, apolitical headlines like checks notes "Don’t let Congress censor the Internet"?

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Disgusting attack.

Sorry, but the village idiot that usually comes on here pointing out how accounts that have been dormant for years somehow implies Techdirt fuckery typically doesn’t look at accounts critical of Techdirt.

I am the equal opportunity guy. How are we supposed to take you seriously since you haven’t bothered to comment in 9 years?

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Whoever says:

This demonstrates the purpose of Tucker Carlson

The other takeaway from this should be that the purpose of the Tucker Carlson show is to distribute propoganda that aligns with the Murdoch clan’s agenda.

They could make more money with a more factual show, but they are prepared to make less money as long as he continues to promote white supremacy and lies about COVID, economics, Trump winning the election, etc..

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: This demonstrates the purpose of Tucker Carlson

Yes, of course this.

I don’t remember where I saw it, but Rupert Murdoch said he’d switch to left-leaning news if it got more attention than right-leaning news. But it doesn’t, so he keeps FOX spouting information that appeals to right-wing people and gets left-wing people upset.
Either way, he gets more attention.

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restless94110 (profile) says:

who you gonna believe

So you seriously believe that the most-watched guy on cable at this time, it’s only because of bundling?

It couldn’t be because his shows are great? It couldn’t be because he is a dissident voice?

Breathtaking. Truly astonishing. In all my days, I never thought I’d witness such a flow from another human being in America.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: who you gonna believe

It couldn’t be because his shows are great?

Well no, because Fox News itself said ‘no reasonable person would take what he says seriously’ as to their defense to a defamation suit:

https://www.businessinsider.com/fox-news-karen-mcdougal-case-tucker-carlson-2020-9

…and a judge agreed.

It couldn’t be because he is a dissident voice?

Not so much ‘dissident’ as ‘rambling fool who shouldn’t be taken seriously.’

If Fox News says out of their own mouths that he’s full of shit, what does it say about you simple-minded fuckheads who use him a source of ‘news?’ I mean, if you want to be taken seriously, believing that the functional equivalent of professional wrestling is real isn’t a good look.

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Rocky says:

Re: who you gonna believe

So you seriously believe that the most-watched guy on cable at this time, it’s only because of bundling?

It’s very likely, because if Fox was unbundled they would loose a substantial portion of their viewers, since they actually would have to increase the price for subscriptions to compensate. This goes for any channel if they where to be unbundled.

It couldn’t be because his shows are great?

That you think his shows are great is not under question, because that is a very subjective thing, just like how coprophages likes to eat shit.

It couldn’t be because he is a dissident voice?

Dissident voice, huh? He got sued for slander and his defense was that you can’t believe what he says since he isn’t actually stating facts because his show engages in "exaggeration and non-literal commentary". In other words, he makes shit up on his show to get viewers and that’s because he’s no dissident. What you see is a very calculated performance, a performance designed to get fools like you believing he’s telling the hidden truth, and other fools to clutch their pearls at the things he says.

Breathtaking. Truly astonishing. In all my days, I never thought I’d witness such a flow from another human being in America.

That’s because your whole point of contention is based on false assumptions, it’s easy to do when you lack reading comprehension and believe the words of demagogues. TL;DR, you’re a gullible fool.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Great way to prove that defense correct I guess...

Dissident voice, huh? He got sued for slander and his defense was that you can’t believe what he says since he isn’t actually stating facts because his show engages in "exaggeration and non-literal commentary".

That defense gets me every time, because you’ve got people like him and The Kraken arguing that only fools would take what they say seriously, and then lo and behold people come springing to their defense, apparently missing that by the arguments of the very people they are defending they have shown themselves to be fools.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Great way to prove that defense correct I guess...

"… lo and behold people come springing to their defense, apparently missing that by the arguments of the very people they are defending they have shown themselves to be fools."

Literally so;

Carlson: "Only morons would believe what I say on my show!"
MAGA Mob: "Carlson is ahr prophit! He tells it like it is! Stop bein MEAN ta him!"

Of course, by now most MAGA hat wearers, proud boys, and of course Restless94110 is convinced that "Idiot" really just means "Conservative" rather than "Someone of very low intelligence".

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

a dissident voice

Tucker Carlson stumps for white supremacists vis-á-vis promotion of the “great replacement ‘theory’ ” and recently called for viewers to have the authorities alerted to parents who have their children wear masks outside. He isn’t a “dissident”. He is a threat.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: who you gonna believe

"It couldn’t be because his shows are great? It couldn’t be because he is a dissident voice? "

You realize his own legal defense is that no rational person would ever take him seriously?

His "show" is basically him ignoring factual reality and pushing out a message intended to make white supremacists and Qanon fanatics sit up and salivate because it tells them what they want to hear, not anything which is true.

All I have to say is that if your idea of "entertainment" is to have some clown sit and spout racist bullshit and reality denial for half an hour then that just says as much about the fragile alt-right snowflakes who can’t handle the truth as it does Tucker Carlson.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

Do either CNN or MSNBC have hosts who routinely spout misinformation and lies, white supremacist rhetoric, and what practically counts as defenses for fascism? I just wanna know if you’re okay with all that going on over at Fox News in general and Tucker Carlson’s show specifically.

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Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

btr1701 has made it clear for years that he’s absolutely strongly supportive of Tucker Carlson’s personal brand of fascism.

But, it is true that MSNBC (especially) and CNN (to a lesser extent) both have problems with hosts pushing misinformation. There is a difference, however, as outlined in Yochai Benker’s book. When Fox pushes misinformation, no one within the conservative media ecosystem ever push back. Instead, they take the misinformation and they amplify it and justify it. When people like Joy Reid and Malcolm Nance push misinformation (as they have done), there are people within the mainstream media ecosystem who do call them out on it.

It’s an important difference, though I do wish MSNBC and CNN would move away from platforming such people themselves.

But when put in context, it’s clear that Fox News is significantly more dangerous in the type of disinfo it pushes.

And, yes, unbundling would also harm CNN and MSNBC and… I don’t mind that, nor do I think the author minds that.

But the point of his article was to figure out what stopped the truly dangerous disinformation pushers, and that is Fox News, without a doubt, even if you are sucked into their bubble, as btr1701 truly is.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There may have been something to this 6 or 7 months ago. CNN would be dead now if not for cable bundles.

Fox has issues. No doubt. But the ‘left’ looks solely at a few hours of prime time political commentary and entertainment and ignores the whole.
Generally most of the majority remaining coverage is more typical the NYT style of slightly partisan “this happened”.

But their business brand is some of the most respected financial and investment coverage in the world.
Their streaming service is highly rated across political factions. The majority of which is non-political American history documentaries.

They won’t do it, but if fox were to walk into Amazon and offer their streaming service for Prime re-trans they’d be picked up in a heartbeat. FBC daytime numbers match the soaps. Fox nation has more subscribers than Great Courses with sole carrier access.

Here’s the thing though.

Many broadcasters (I use the term loosely for stations) are against debundling. The average top cable package exceeds 400 actual visual channels. Many operating at cost.

The problem isn’t the cable companies who likely wouldn’t see much change in ala carte if they still offered bundles.
They’re still going to survive. The volume of current users who would debundle is over rated. Just look at the move to streaming bundles and how they outsell individual stations.

Most who want to cut the cord have done so or will if affordable internet is offered.
And they go to, gasp, another bundle.
Hulu, sling, YouTube… etc.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for debundling.
But it’s not going to kill any of the targets.
What it will do is
A) kill liberal media (cnn)
B) kill niche media. Ion, rainbow… won’t survive on Amazon alone.
C) Transfer the money from big cable to big tech.

Think about who offers tv now that is non cable.
Google, Hulu, Microsoft, Samsung, roku, lg, Asus, Apple…

So debundling must consist of allowing bundles. Otherwise all you do is kill off the independents.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Do either CNN or MSNBC have hosts who routinely spout misinformation and lies

Here’s another one:

https://twitter.com/NBC29/status/1454164919826501634?s=20

This story was posted eight hours after it became widely known that these people were Democrat staffers attempting to smear Youngkin by tying him to fake white supremacists and that’s not mentioned anywhere in this NBC News report.

But only Fox News lies and misinforms. Sure, you keep pretending that’s true. I decline to fall for your gaslighting.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

They all lie.
Well, Fox and CNN tend to be to be half-truthful sort of methodology. As long as you jettisoned the prime time shows you’d at least walk away with mostly accurate info.

Where OAN has no care what they run if it brings viewers.
And MSNBC is nothing more than a few letters in DNC PR people.

Here’s where things are interesting though: broadcast news. And I’m not talking about the national news shows. But the pre and post local news.

ABC is fully nationalised for primary new and is undeniably, self-admittedly pro Democrats.

NBC is regionalised. And you get a very different headlines depending on the region.

Fox broadcasting is 100% independent. An no two stations cover the same topics the same way.

For those in areas with overlapping coverage of broadcast, catching NBC from different regions is interesting. But fox can be down right jarring in how different the slant is.

But there’s no real news left in America on television. Everything has a slant. Some are better dressed up than others but the slant is there.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"And the non-watchers also subsidize the leftist shills on MSNBC and CNN."

There are no leftists in the US.

Seriously, Bernie Sanders would be considered a centrist conservative in the rest of the world. Eisenhower and Reagan would, today, be considered centrist democrats.

THAT is how out of touch and disjointed your politics are.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…no, MSNBC and CNN still have advertisers and sponsors for their anchors, because those anchors spin what is there, they don’t spout complete bullshit like Tucker does.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'Most importantly it would reduce OUR profits...'

The cable and broadcast industry has lobbied relentlessly to ensure this shift to individual channels never happens, claiming that moving to an a la carte model would kill niche channels and raise consumer prices (both things that repeatedly happened anyway).

Strange, that sounds remarkably like that mythical ‘Free market’ large companies are all for when they’re not trying to rig it against their competitors, where a product/channel either succeeds based upon it’s merits or fails and is replaced by one that the public actually does want, I guess the cable companies aren’t fans of the free market after all, imagine that.

Ah well, I’m sure Tucker Carlson is thrilled to be on the receiving end of a nice dose of socialism, supported not because people want to pay him but merely because money spent elsewhere is funneled to support him.

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Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Cable bundling has to go.

A slightly modified version of the opening covering the other half the country is
Thanks To Crappy Cable Channel Bundles, Non-Watchers Hugely Subsidise CNN, MSNBC, and other disinformation platforms.

I’m paying for all the news networks and don’t want any of them.
On top of that we’re still paying for broadcast fees, don’t watch Broadcast channels.

And US pro sports. Baseball, football, basketball? Don’t watch them.

Discovery Plus is making it very close to being able to drop TV service. With the other services I have to watch what I want when.
But we’re not quite there. Most, but not all, video groups now have some level of subscription offering online.

Just be patient. They days of paying for crap are coming to an end.

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