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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Filed Under: bundles, cable bundles, fox news, subsidization, tucker carlson
Companies: news corp


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  1. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 29 Apr 2021 @ 5:34pm

    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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