Demanding a la carte cable for Brookline/Boston

Brookline | Media | Access/Network
Subscribers of Comcast Cable in Brookline and Boston are seeing cable channels get zapped under their very eyes– an effect not unlike the disappearing memories of Jim Carrey’s character in the brilliant new movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But the channels aren’t going away completely, they are effectively jumping over to the digital side.

This is, by and large, a good thing, and is the next step of digital progress. Not too many years ago I remember when cabling in Brookline and Boston came in on two separate cables. When the analog spectrum is fully freed up, the cable provider can put that bandwidth to good use, like for extra Internet bandwidth or for HDTV.

The downside: you need to spend an extra $4/month for a digital cable convertor for each set now. That may seem small, but it adds up, and to many it’s an insult on top of the existing high cable rates (not to mention Comcast’s relocation of Brookline Access Television out from their Amory St. studios). At the cable hearing last month in Brookline, most of the community’s elderly residents who spoke out were furious about the forced upgrade.

But an answer does present itself: it’s called la carte cable. With “a la carte”-style pricing, you don’t have to pay for the whole package of channels; you only pay for the ones you want. This is how just about every other business works in a free market. The ranking members of the US Senate’s Commerce Committee– John McCain (R-AZ) and Fritz Hollings (D-SC)– both are pushing for a la carte cable. This is even after the Commerce committee was rebuffed by a dismissive GAO report last fall. Rep. Tom Osborne (R-NE) has suggested that a fair market system would enable consumer choice to play a larger role in governing content versus the FCC.

The cable companies have long fought this: they complained that it was technically difficult. With the technology all digital, it is much easier to manage the channels you subscribe to. Cable companies, including Comcast, have also gotten into the habit of signing long-term licensing deals with the networks, so they’ll respond that it is contractually impossible to do. This probably violates the Sherman Antitrust act, and it may ultimately take a court case to determine that (as the Supreme Court had decided in 1948 against the movie studios, who were guilty of a similar bundling scheme). I’ve written a more thorough analysis of a la carte cable if you are interested in learning more.

I know that I have friends who love cable and love their TiVo’s, and might end up paying more in order to get the same channels they enjoy now. And I also have friends and relatives in the entertainment business earn a living partly thanks to residuals of B-movies playing at odd hours on TBS. My favorite television indulgence, the “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge” may find itself eliminated in an cutthroat climate. But then again, many shows get cancelled under the current ratings system. Just like the beef business, we price television for mass consumption even though science suggests that it needn’t be.

The television business may ultimately change thanks to new technologies, like on-demand programming and broader-band Internet. For the time being, the digital conversion is the new technology, and a la carte cable should be the solution. This can be the first community to do it. Brookline is obviously as far as anyone could consider a typical television market. I just think that a la carte pricing is the right thing to do for consumer choice, and we should be able to demand it.

I’ll be pressing this case at the April 29th cable hearing at Town Hall, and at other times as well. I was hoping you could support me in this effort (particularly if you are a Brookline or Boston resident).

April 30th update: I did go last night to the ascertainment hearing. Most of the hearing was devoted to a presentation by consulting engineer William Pohts, who was commissioned by the town (and paid by Comcast) to report on the signal quality and cabling safety. I gave public testimony on the above. The town’s general counsel Peter Epstein responded that yes, this was likely best decided on a national level, but it’s possible that local action could happen: “There’s a first for everything.”

May 24th update: about all the cable channels have been zapped, save for MSNBC. I also realized quite belatedly that this similarly affects Boston as well, so I updated the text above to reflect that. My friend Dave is tearing out his hair that he has to reprogram his Tivo– for the digital age. I did send a note to the City ombudsmen for utilities/broadband, but did not hear back.

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    Would be good if….. lostatredrock Sep 10 ’06 3:39PM