End the cable blackout madness!July 19, 2012: 12:47 PM ET
If you want your MTV and you are a DirecTV subscriber, you are out of luck. But what if you are like me? I stopped watching MTV in the early 90s -- you know when the M no longer really stood for music. I have DirecTV and am shedding no tears over the fact that I can't watch "Snooki & JWOWW." But it sure would be nice to be able to see "South Park" on Comedy Central.
The spat between DirecTV (DTV) and Comedy Central/MTV owner Viacom (VIAB) is getting uglier by the day. And it is not an isolated case either. Dish Network (DISH) customers can't currently get their "Breaking Bad" fix on AMC (AMCX) -- although AMC did stream Sunday's season premiere online.
And earlier this year, Knicks fans with Time Warner Cable (TWC) were unable to watch their favorite team until the emergence of the now departed Jeremy Lin (sniff) helped lead to a deal between TWC and the MSG (MSG) Network.
It is time to stop this blackout foolishness. The big media companies -- including CNNMoney parent Time Warner (TWX) and the cable and satellite distribution systems who pipe the content onto her flat-screens -- need to finally do what's right for consumers. We need so-called a la carte pricing models -- the option to only pay for the channels we really want and need.
One of the main reasons why Big Media and Big Cable -- who sometimes are the same thing ... I'm talking about you Comcast (CMCSA) -- are constantly fighting is because the content companies want the cable/satellite guys to offer a huge chunk of channels (many of which are niche networks) as part of their basic packages when they are negotiating new carriage deals.
This makes no sense. Consumers want the freedom to choose what they want to watch. And while paying for a channel you probably have no interest in may be spun by media companies as "diversity of programming," let's call a spade a spade. It's you and I who are getting ripped off. Would you go to a restaurant if it charged you an extra $10 to help subsidize the cost of items on the menu that only five people a week would order? No.
That's why many disgruntled TV fans are cutting the cord or dumping the dish. The beauty of watching video online is that you often can watch what you want when you want without having to subsidize content you could care less about. The content is often free.
But even for services where you have to either pay per download or steam -- i.e. Amazon's (AMZN) Instant Video or Apple's (AAPL) iTunes -- or monthly subscriptions fees like Netflix (NFLX), you do have true freedom. Heck, you don't even have to have loyalty to a channel. You could literally just watch the shows you want.
Now I realize that there are those who think a la carte pricing will be bad news for consumers. It could actually eliminate choices. The argument is that if people were allowed to pay for only the channels they watched most, there is a risk that content providers would shut down the channels that don't have a lot of viewers. That would be unfortunate. But how would that be any different from the way networks decide the fate of individual programs?
Even the lowest-rated of TV shows have their most die-hard fans. I was legitimately sad to see ABC cancel "Pushing Daisies" a few years ago. But if it doesn't make economic sense to keep producing a program for a limited audience, then the show dies. You move on and find something else to watch. That's the sad reality in a business dependent on "eyeballs" and the ad dollars that flock to them.
Also, independent and niche programming often finds a way to get made in Hollywood regardless of whether there is broad appeal. In a world where "The Artist" can win Best Picture despite being a black and white movie with virtually no dialogue and no A-list stars (does John Goodman in a few brief scenes count?), I'd like to think that less frequently watched networks offering "quality" content can also still survive.
Several years ago, the Federal Communications Commission was strongly considering proposals that would pave the way for a la carte pricing in cable television. The plan ultimately died as many big media firms rallied against it. But unless content creators and cable operators can stop bickering and learn to play nice, it may be time to revisit the idea of giving subscribers true freedom to choose only what they want.
It's already the model for most online video sites. So the cable networks and distributors might as well adapt and embrace the trend. If they don't, then more of their customers ... and maybe even their shareholders ... will as well.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.