Thursday, March 11, 2010

A la carte and the law of unintended consequences

If you live in the New York metropolitan area, you were a pawn in a high-stakes game of "chicken" between Cablevision and Disney, with the Academy Awards telecast as the prize. The issue was how much Cablevision would pay Disney to retransmit ABC's broadcast stations. After the Academy Awards had been going on for 15 minutes, Cablevision and Disney finally came to an agreement.

Now, the cable and satellite companies want the FCC to outlaw broadcasters from withholding their programming and force both parties to accept arbitration. Broadcasters, who have no small amount of political clout and influence at the FCC, argue that consumers have multiple ways of getting their programming, including over-the-air at no cost. If they can't withhold their programming, they'll have almost no bargaining power with service providers.

The service providers are using these retransmission fees as a reason for raising their rates to consumers, which is causing a customer backlash. Even worse, viewers are once again viewing service providers as unreliable. The cable industry has worked for more than a decade to overcome its reputation for unreliability and poor customer service. Now that most of the major service providers seem to have their acts together, program suppliers are pulling channels at a moment's notice. Planning to watch the Academy Awards tonight? Better get that antenna out. Want to make sure you see the Super Bowl? Good luck if the network that carries it is in negotiations with your service provider.

One likely outcome, and one that neither the service providers nor the program suppliers want, is to force the service providers to make channels available a la carte. In an a la carte world, the service providers would pay the program suppliers only for the channels that its customers subscribe to, and in direct proportion to how many subscribe to each channel. Presumably, the program suppliers would set a wholesale price per subscriber, and service providers could mark that price up or down.

Service providers hate a la carte because it will almost certainly decrease their revenues. Customers will be able to trade off fixed packages and a la carte selections, and go with the cheapest option. Tiered pricing plans will be wrecked, since customers will be able to build their own packages.

Program suppliers are scared to death of a la carte for several reasons: First, they'll no long be able to charge service providers for all of their subscribers; they'll only be able to charge for the customers who actually subscribe to their channels. That will result in dramatic revenue drops for many, if not most, channels. Second, advertising-supported channels will no longer be able to represent all the subscribers to a service provider as "potential" viewers; they will only be able to list the actual number of subscribers in a given period. Which would you rather tell advertisers: We've got coverage in 60 million households in the U.S., or 2.5 million households have actually subscribed to watch our channel?

The final, and perhaps scariest, outcome of a la carte for program suppliers is that the service providers may cut back on their channel lineups to just the most popular and profitable channels. Unpopular channels that have been carried so that service providers can support a wide variety of interests may be dropped.

As brinksmanship between service providers and program suppliers becomes a way of life, consumers will increasingly look for alternative sources of programming. If they can't control how much service providers are willing to pay for channels, and are thus constantly at risk of missing shows they want to watch, they'll demand the right to select and pay for channels themselves. If the service providers and program suppliers don't agree, they'll find other ways to get the programs or other things to do with their time. This game-playing has to stop.

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