I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a bit of a debate raging on a la carte television – allowing you, the cable television consumer, to pay for only the channels you’re actually interested in watching. Consumer groups like it, because it saves the consumer money, but the cable channels don’t, because small cable channels would be more likely to find an audience if cable companies pushed them on companies. But really, the large cable channels would be hurt more than the small ones, because channels most people find useless, like Oxygen, wouldn’t be picked, saving money for smaller channels people might have more interest in. That would reduce the resources of all of cable and possibly swing some of the cable channels’ advantages back to broadcast, as well as make niche networks, appealing to niche markets, more viable.
But to claim, as this blog did in July, that it would completely revolutionize the news and sports industries?
It’s become mandatory to have cable if you’re a sports fan, and a la carte would take away a significant portion of the revenue stream for the sports networks that gives ESPN an unfair advantage over the broadcast networks, but to say it would end journalistic botches like the Roethlisberger scandal? To say it would force the news networks to become actual news networks instead of partisan machines? MSNBC and Fox, and to a lesser extent CNN, play to partisan crowds because partisan shows like those of Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, and Lou Dobbs get ratings that straight news doesn’t. You’re saying that, even though more people watch the partisan shows than straight news, more straight news people would order the news channel than partisan news people? That’s a bit of a leap of logic, especially since the media’s turn towards partisanship encompasses more than just the cable news networks, being the order of the day on the Internet. (Wait, isn’t one of the big selling points of the internet choice? Isn’t that what this guy wants? Doesn’t this mean a right-winger could order Fox and leave out CNN and MSNBC entirely?) A large portion of Howard Stern’s audience may have left him when he went to satellite radio, but to say that what’s popular in “cable TV socialism” is completely different than what would be popular in a la carte makes no sense, especially since there would be no alternative.
Honestly, I think the horse has left the barn on the changes this blog post wants, which might have happened had the government never imposed “socialism”, but not now. To say ESPN would have a lot of its power taken away might have made sense before 2005 or even last year, but with the BCS and Monday Night Football now in its pocket I think there are enough people desperate enough for those two things, and more besides, that they’re willing to fork over enough for ESPN for it to still be a powerful force. Sports fans are a notoriously passionate and desperate bunch. And to say that fixing cable would fix the news networks makes no sense at all, and in this day and age, where our partisan discourse (which is slowly creating a real “two Americas”) is reinforced by the Internet and with the news networks entrenched in their ways, I doubt it would lead to significant movement.
Besides, any debate on the role of television, broadcast or cable, is probably missing the larger point (hinted at towards the end), that it’ll all be swept under the dustbin of history as the Internet comes in within a decade or two. And while I suspect when that happens, broadcast and cable “networks” will become largely obsolete and sports entities will produce and distribute games themselves, all evidence suggests ESPN will still have its popular website and the partisan discourse on cable news will continue unabated on the Web.
Now how imposing a la carte and moving to the Web would affect entertainment, now that’s a question worth asking…