Why Pay For Channels You Don’t Even Watch? A La Carte, Coming Soon?

By Eric Misterovich

If you have cable or satellite TV, then you are probably paying for channels that you either never watch or did not even know that you had.  This is because cable and satellite TV providers sell “bundles” of packages in their different subscription packages.  You buy a package, and those are the channels you get.  If you want a specific channel, then you better buy a package that includes it.  Wouldn’t it be nice to order and pay for only the channels that you want?  Well, new legislation introduced in the Senate last Thursday would force cable companies to do just that.

 

The bill is known as the Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013 and is being sponsored by Senator John McCain.  The bill would require cable and satellite TV providers to offer “a la carte” channel ordering for consumers.  Basically, you could pick the channels that you want out of your provider’s “channel menu” and order only the channels that you wish to pay for.  McCain argues that the current practice of bundling the channels forces consumers to pay money for content that they do not want.

 

Critics of the “a la carte” approach argue that if a person is willing to pay to have access to the channels that they want to watch, then what they are really paying for is access to those channels and any extra channels received are just a bonus.  Additionally, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association opposes the “a la carte” approach on the grounds that bundling channels offers better channel diversity and encourages development of specially targeted programming.  This argument might not hold as much weight with the advent of original programming by Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, AOL, Yahoo, and even YouTube.

 

The bill also addresses two other areas: (1) the threat of major networks, such as Fox and CBS, to move to paid channels and (2) blackouts of local sports broadcasts.

 

First, major broadcast networks began their threats to move to paid programming in the wake of the Aereo decision in the Second Circuit.  The bill would punish major networks if they decide to move their programming to cable by denying them access to broadcast airwaves that they currently receive for free.

 

Additionally, the NFL and several other major sports leagues have a blackout policy for locally broadcast games if they do not sell a required number of tickets to the game.  This means that if not enough seats to the game are sold and you live in the local broadcast area, then you will not be able to watch your team play.  The bill outlaws that practice in situations where public funds are used to build the team’s stadium.  Many teams require public assistance in funding their new stadiums, and McCain argues that denying the local citizens the ability to watch a team that their tax dollars help fund is “unconscionable.”

 

This bill still has a lot of obstacles to overcome in order to become law.  If passed, it would completely change the way we order our cable and satellite TV content. Revision Legal’s communications lawyers are actively watching this space and will keep you abreast of any developments.

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