A la Carte – Has the Time Finally Come?

A la carte programming. Everyone talks about it. What if you could pay for only the channels you actually watched, or even just the programs you actually watched? Most people watch only about 10% of the channels they get… does that mean they could lower their programming costs by 90%?

A la carte is already here, really. iTunes will let you rent individual episodes of individual shows. It’s usually about $1.99 per show. That’s not cheap enough to shatter the old cable/satellite model… most people who spend $100 a month on programming might not watch the 50 shows a month it takes to break even, but the convenience factor is still there with cable and satellite. Just turn on the TV and it works.

Most people would like a la carte channel selection. That would fit much more, because you could pick the channels you actually liked and not pay for the channels you don’t. For people who don’t like sports, they could avoid spending $20 a month just for the ESPN channels.

Traditional wisdom says that a la carte would kill the “little” channels. If you’re a fan of National Geographic Wild, for example, you might get that a la carte, but it wouldn’t be subsidized by more popular channels like Comedy Central. Would you pay $10 a month for it? Those documentaries are very expensive to produce and they don’t get fabulous ratings.

The other argument is that Americans like “all-you-can-eat” pricing. Do you pay per minute or per megabyte for your cell phone? You probably have a fixed amount of time or data you can spend, whether or not you use it. Netflix, which charges a fixed fee per month, is still outselling iTunes videos that charge by the video. Americans seem to like it that way, so why would you go to a model where you pay every time you turn on the TV?


It seems so unfair to scroll through all those channels knowing you’ll never watch them. It seems even less fair to pay $10 or $20 per month more because you want one channel in a package. And opening up that $150+/month cable bill… that stings, and if you’re like most people you think to yourself, “there’s got to be a better way.”

So maybe the time has actually come for more sensible pricing. We hear over and over again that some content is so expensive to make, and yet every day millions of people create and distribute content for free on YouTube. Some programs, like Showtime’s Web Therapy live a successful double life as free YouTube videos and subscription content. Some content like Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog actually started out as free content and graduated to pay status due to its quality. It can be done!

It’s possible that the only thing holding back a la carte are the content providers themselves, who want to prop up a weak program selection by forcing lower-rated programs on more people. That seems awfully evil of them, though. It’s just a business decision after all.

Still, with average cable rates jumping by double digits every single year, something has to be done. There are so many options; a la carte is just one.

What do you think… what would you pay for?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.