What ever happened to the battle over “a la carte” programming?

Hey, remember back like 10 years ago when everyone talked about “a la carte” programming? Seems like nobody does anymore and here’s a little secret as to why: it was never a good idea.

The time was 2005.

Hard to believe that was almost fifteen years ago, but it was. It was the days when a 40-hour standard-definition DVR was really something special. It was back in that time that you were really rockin’ that home theater if you had a 50″ rear projection TV built into an entertainment center the size of a pickup truck.

And the big battle back then was “a la carte” programming.

What was it all about?

The big complaint at the time was that you had hundreds of channels. You were paying for all of them, but watching maybe ten or fifteen. Back then you probably paid about $50 for a mid-priced satellite subscription so you did the basic math. You could cut your bill down to $7.50 a month by watching only the channels you wanted.

Or so that was the argument.

Except, it didn’t really hold water. The truth is that you were paying about $40 a month for the 15 channels that most people watched and just pennies for the others. The other channels were always part of bundles that added value. They weren’t intended as moneymakers.

Yet, people kept bringing up the idea. The apex came in the early 2010s when it became possible to download TV shows from iTunes. You could buy individual shows or whole seasons. That sounded great, but at $2.00 an episode, that could pile up quickly. Back then, practically no one dumped cable or satellite just to buy shows a la carte.

A funny thing happened a while back…

…people stopped talking about a la carte. Instead they started talking about cord cutting. Cord cutting is sort of the opposite of a la carte, at least it started out that way. Yes, you can pick and choose what services you want but you get a gigantic spigot full of content with each service. That was one of the big draws of cord cutting. You could pick and choose what you paid for, but you always got great value.

What we’re seeing now, though, is that cord cutting is slumping a little bit because it’s really turned into a la carte. Few services are able to continually provide enough content to keep people interested. Netflix has been good, but recent data seems to indicate people feel like they’re paying too much and not getting enough that they want. That sounds like an old anti-cable problem.

I tend to level the most criticism at AppleTV+ and CBS All Access, because both services, though lower-priced, have only a few shows that appeal. AppleTV+ seems to be sputtering because The Morning Show isn’t getting rave reviews. CBS isn’t far off. They don’t have a really rich content library which means you’re probably showing up just for Star Trek.

So, about 15 years after people made the argument, a lot of people do feel like they’ve got a la carte. Right now they’re watching nothing but Friends or The Office on Netflix. That’s a problem for Netflix since those shows are moving away to other services. You don’t hear much about Hulu since the recent season of The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t really generate buzz. It seems like HBO and Showtime keep the pump primed very well, and so does Starz. But you can get those on satellite and have a lot more content as well.

The lesson: not surprisingly, a la carte doesn’t work.

One by one, streaming services are learning that people show up for the one show they want. And then they leave. Unlike cable, people ditch streaming services anytime they want. Good for consumers, bad for those companies. With so many services, people are going to do more canceling unless Netflix and that group come up with something worth watching, every single week. That’s a pretty big hurdle.

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 5,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.