MORE THAN JUST AN OPINION: A la carte doesn’t work (except when it does)

The other day I was having a discussion that became a little more heated than it should be. The subject was that perennial fight… whether or not we will ever see truly a la carte programming. A la carte was a big point of discussion about five years ago when the economy was slumping and people looked everywhere they could to save money. The idea was, you have a channel package with maybe 200 channels and really you watch maybe 20. If you could pay for just the channels you want, your bill could be a lot lower.

And then the arguments began. The most persuasive argument against a la carte is the simple fact that the channels you really despise are actually making your bill lower, not higher. Those religious channels for religions you don’t follow, those shopping and infomercial channels… they’re actually paying for inclusion and that means that if you eliminate them your bill would actually go up.

It’s funny how the argument simmered down quite a bit when people started doing streaming TV and when the economy started to recover. You don’t hear a lot about a la carte now, and so it was kind of odd to get sucked back into that conversation. Today it’s all about skinny packages, in other words very small bundles of channels rather than picking individual ones. Verizon’s trying this and it’s not incredibly successful.

I finally brought up how a la carte had been tried, and it failed. What’s this you say? You didn’t know? Well of course not. It’s not like everyone had the opportunity, but in the past commercial customers paid by the channel, not by the package. Some still do, specifically hotels that have had satellite service for a very long time. It seemed to make sense that bars and restaurants would only pay for channels they needed in order to satisfy their customers. Except you know what… it didn’t work. Customers with these so-called “public viewing accounts” didn’t want to have to pick and choose. They wanted to pay a fair price for a package of channels, just like they did at home. So you know what DIRECTV did? They decided to offer packages just like home ones, and it’s been incredibly successful. There you go…

There’s one arena (and I’m choosing that word on purpose) where a la carte actually does work: sports. Whether it’s for business or pleasure, people seem reasonably willing to pay $7-10 per month for a channel that features a team they like. They don’t want to pay anything for a team they don’t like, and people seem to really hate that extra sports programming fee from DIRECTV. Again choosing my sayings carefully, don’t blame the player — blame the game. DIRECTV has no choice but to impose a fee like this on everyone because sports programmers won’t agree to an a la carte system even though people do actually want it in this case. Maybe they’re afraid that they’ll learn how many people don’t want that team. Maybe they are so blinded by fan favoritism that they can’t imagine a situation where people don’t want to watch their local team. For whatever reason, a la carte is off the table even though it’s the perfect solution for sports.

Yes, when it comes to a la carte, the whole world’s turned upside down. When you could logically get it, you wouldn’t want it. When you do want it, you can’t get it. How ridiculous is that? That’s no way to run a cart, that’s for sure. Turn a cart upside down and you can’t wheel it. Credit goes to DIRECTV and other programmers for figuring out how to do anything at all in such a topsy-turvy environment. Maybe some day things will improve.

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.