Seventy percent of American households subscribe to cable. Many, like the Daniels family in Kathleen, Ga., applaud the variety. What annoys them is having to pay for channels they consider unwelcome, even offensive.
“The cable company,” says Cliff Daniels, “is forcing us to pay for all the channels we never use.”
It's called “bundling” — packages of cable channels offered by cable operators. Consumer advocates insist it's a big reason your cable bills have soared, up 59 percent since 1996, three times the rate of inflation.
Consumers would pay much less, says FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin, if they could sign up for individual channels, the so-called “a la carte” approach. A la carte, though, makes the operators of some small cable channels shudder. Without bundling, they'd get fewer viewers and less advertising revenue.
If unconventional programs weren't bundled, they wouldn't attract viewers who surf — and who later become ardent fans.
“I think it is highly likely many of the established brands, not just the newcomers, will have a real rough time in an a la carte model,” says Oxygen Channel CEO Geraldine Leybourne.
While most cable companies oppose the change, the eighth biggest system endorses it, arguing it is un-American to make customers pay for programs they don't want.
“When you go into a grocery store to buy a quart of milk,” says Cablevision Chairman Chas Dolan, “you're not told by the grocer, ‘Well, you can't have the milk unless you also buy a dozen eggs or a pound of cheese.’”
The proposed change faces an uncertain fate in Congress and, if passed, certain court challenges. Until then, the channel switching will go on — and so will the grumbling.
“I'm not watching it,” Christine Daniels asks, “so why should I have it?”