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« Hibernation | Main | Throwing Their Hat In The Ring »

Cable TV Regulation

Via Technology Review, and article on the technical objections to a la carte cable service. Turns out the complaints by Comcast and Time Warner that it's technically difficult are flat out BS. Surprise!

You'd think that the cable companies would stand to benefit by going to an a la carte model - I know I'd be much more likely to get cable if I could pick and choose, and pay for only those channels I'm interested in. Also, by letting customers pick channels for themselves the cable companies would have a much better read on what their viewers are interested in, which would help pitch advertising better.

I dislike government telling businesses how to run their operations, so I oppose forcing cable companies to go to an a la carte model. The fact that the media megacorps feel the need to shade the truth about the costs is interesting, though. Much more worthy of government intervention to my mind is the simple fact that media megaconglomerates exist. Concentrations of power are a threat to liberty regardless of whether they are governmental or private. Concentrations of power within the media are particularly dangerous, because they can shape our perceptions of the world. If there's any area where heavy handed intervention in the marketplace is justified, it's in breaking up media conglomerates.

Incidentally, I realize there's a widespread view within the blogosphere that blogs represent a revolution in information accessability that make old media irrelevant. This is such a dumb notion that I have a hard time figuring out how to address it without insulting the reader's intelligence. Blogs are a new, parallel information source (with a godawful signal/noise ratio), which offers access only to people who actively seek it out. Suffice to say the number of people reading blogs for information which challenges their preconceptions is small. If blogs become people's primary information source about the world, the US will fragment into tiny groups of people whose worldviews are so different that meaningful communication between them is effectively impossible. We're headed that way now, so maybe I should just stop worrying about it.

Posted by Andrew Case at August 05, 2004 06:56 AM
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One note - that's for digital cable only.

I don't have digital cable, don't want it. At least not until it's noticeably better. (I have this sneaking suspicion that to get HDTV and the like, when it comes out, they'll try and force me to digital cable).

I'm currently with Charter, and I know people with digital cable, and to a person, they say it's nowhere near as good as it's hyped. Before, I had Time-Warner, and I got to see their digital setup - and some of the channels looked *worse* than the analog feeds did. I know a number of people who tried it for less than a day before calling to switch back to analog.

(I've also had Direct TV, and it's digital was impressive, the reciever's menuing system usable, etc). None of that is insolvable, but so far, at least Charter, Comcast, and TW haven't seemed to care enough to fix it.... so I sit here with my analog cable (might as well, since my cablemodem charges more if I don't have it).

Posted by Addison at August 5, 2004 07:26 AM


Excellent point about blogs catering to people who already agree with them. As open minded as I like to think I am, I rarely visit Liberal, European, or Muslim blogs, since I'm not really interested in what they have to say. I know their opinions and disagree with them.

Of course, I turn off CBS News (and the like) for the same reason, so I'm not sure if the current media is much different. People watch what they want, and what they usually want is for 'experts' to validate their preconceptions.


Posted by Stephen Kohls at August 5, 2004 08:10 AM


I have to agree with your comment about the weaknesses of blogs. I've seen far too much of what you mentioned about people figuratively dislocating their shoulders patting themselves on the back over how much smarter they are for sticking with blogs instead of those stupid mainstream guys. I think the self-reinforcing tendency that "a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest" is all too prevalent today.

For what it's worth though, I do at least read some sources that I disagree strongly with (such as almost anything Rand posts about politics or foreign policy). But I think that most people just hang out on blogs that agree with their preconceived notions, slapping each other on the back about how cool they are.


Posted by Jonathan Goff at August 5, 2004 09:13 AM

Well said Rand.

I think it very presumptive to believe that a powerful and corrupt media does not have the potential for harm, even to the destruction of a nation. The media has the power to placate or marginalize when too few voices are aware of dangers. The irony is that it is their charge to sound the alarms... and they themselves are the danger.

Posted by ken anthony at August 5, 2004 09:49 AM

So none of you guys ever add or delete bookmarks for blogs? We all have faves, but I certainly have changed my blog reading extensively in the past two years. I'm amazed at all the things I knew that weren't so, and I've usually wised up because I followed a link to a link to link. Definitely MUCH better than the "continued on page A7" that I get in the daily paper.

Posted by slimedog at August 5, 2004 10:53 AM

slimedog - the point is that the number of people willing to slog through blogs looking for insight is quite small. Within the set of all blog readers there's a subset of people who actively seek out smart blogs with divergent views, but it's a small set. I know that readers of TTM are overrepresented there, but TTM readers are a self selected group of people who are far from representative of the population as a whole, or even the majority of blog readers, I suspect.

Posted by Andrew Case at August 5, 2004 11:02 AM

Ummm...that was Andrew, not me, Ken.

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 5, 2004 12:21 PM


Interesting point about blogs catering to people who already agree with them. I rarely visit Liberal blogs, except when following a link from a more conservative site.

However, your wrong. I'll explain why. Despite the fact that I'm not (primarally) seeking out liberal opinions, they come to the comment (and main) sections of political blogs and present their opinions via reply posts. This doesn't happen on TV, in the newspaper or the magazines(although there is a bit of it on talk radio).

I'll cite one case. You -- and me. We are 180 degrees out of phase on some issues, yet we inhabit similar groups and blogs. If I am to be involved in the groups and not a lurker, then I'm likely to be engaged in discussions with you and others of varying viewpoints.

Blogs really are different. Just the fact that the cost of entry is so low, means that there will be many, many flavors unlike "Big Media". This means there is more room for niche opinions (like the Greens or the Libertarians). These voices may in turn influence the mass memes. This is the essence of "Grassroots" -- but now it can occur more efficiently.



Posted by Fred K at August 5, 2004 04:02 PM

Fred - I see your point, but there's still a very high S/N ratio, and most people don't have the time and patience for the level of sifting that regular blog readers do. I have a great deal of respect for people who regularly comment on blogs they disagree with, and do so in a respectful and thoughful way - they are performing a genuine service, IMO, in crosslinking communities that might otherwise fragment.

It's an excellent point you make, though I'm not fully convinced by it due to the self-selection effect of people who are willing to sift through the mess. It does have an effect on major media, since reporters do read blogs, so in a way the blogosphere could contribute to improving the mainstream media by an effect similar to that present in Open Source software - many eyes make shallow bugs.

Posted by Andrew Case at August 5, 2004 04:59 PM

But what about things like Google News? If I understand correctly, it uses some of the larger blogs as news sources. Even though the individual sources tend to be fairly focused, with Google News I'm able to quickly see the different POVs of several different news sources and blogs.

Posted by Neil Halelamien at August 5, 2004 05:33 PM

Personally, I look for blogs that point to information that gets little attention in the major media (private space details for example), and for people that have an interesting take on subjects. I don't consider them news sources as such, more like editorial commentary, a bit like talk radio. Mind you, I usually find purely political blogs of any stripe pretty boring.

I think the argument about Blogs versus Big Media has more to do with Big Media than blogs: With the many voices on the internet, people are realizing that there is a much higher S/N ratio and level of bias in various major news sources than they thought. Blogs are helpful for pointing out different interpretations, other facts available elsewhere that weren't included, etc. Blogs aren't a replacement in any way, but they can add.

Posted by VR at August 5, 2004 05:52 PM

Quote from Addison: "I don't have digital cable, don't want it. At least not until it's noticeably better."

When I lived with my parents they had the AT&T digital cable service. I hooked my cable ready TV directly right up to a BNC cable connection in my room and was able to pull up the analog signal no problem still. Turns out that the video you see is still the same old analog signal. The digital part of the service is the programming guide information that is displayed by the digital convertor.

I love my sattelite dish, the picture is awesome. Since then my parents got an HDTV and upgraded their service to the digital HDTV cable service and the picture still looks worse on a digital broadcast then my satellite broadcast. Granted my parents house has 20 year old infrastructure so there is some signal degradation there that you just don't get with transmissions through the air - well except when a thunderstorm rolls over head.

Posted by
Hefty at August 5, 2004 06:48 PM

Arggh. That should have been "lower S/N" but still, higher level of bias. If I had used actual words, I probably wouldn't have made the mistake. Grumble.

Posted by VR at August 5, 2004 07:35 PM

I've been surprised that UK cable TV organisations have been slow on this. Video on demand services have been around a while and there was an attempt at an a la carte service recently but didn't go anyway.

Murdoch's BSkyB have launched Sky+ which is direct sat Tivo and it is doing rather well, and Telewest, NTL and the other cable players are making noises about following them - but it is taking longer than expected.

Posted by Dave at August 6, 2004 03:49 AM

I may be dense, but why ARE cable companies opposed to the a la carte mode? It does not take a genius to see that they would more customers that way.

BTW, my cable company DOES provide such a mode, more or less. You don't get to choose every particular channel, but it offers a number of different packages which can be mixed and matched.

Posted by Ilya at August 6, 2004 02:28 PM

> I may be dense, but why ARE cable companies opposed to the a la carte mode? It does not take a genius to see that they would more customers that way.

They MIGHT see more customers. They'd almost certainly see less money from each customer.

Why? Because they can't charge much for an individual channel without driving its viewership to close enough to 0 that it doesn't matter. So, even though sports junkies would pay $10/month for ESPN, they can't charge that.

With a la carte pricing, you'd buy 5 channels and your total bill would be significantly less.

And, a la carte pricing will drive up their customer service costs. (You'll change your 5 channels more often than you change packages.)

Since a huge fraction of their costs are per-customer, a la carte pricing's lower per-customer spending is a disaster for cable companies.

Posted by Andy Freeman at August 6, 2004 09:16 PM

Hefty, the channels you're able to view through an analog connection are but a small fraction of what is offered. The Comcast (formerly AT&T) service in my area has analog channels up through the 80's but the digital range goes into the 500's including PPV and audio feeds.

Some of the digital channels are duplicates of analog channels but those analog channels are slowly being phased out. I recently gave up the digital receiver to save money and by the end of this year at least 3 of the channels I'm receiving through the basic analog service will be discontinued and only available through digital. Comcast can squeeze several low-end digital channels in the same bandwidth required by a single analog channel so they're highly motivated to get everyone on digital ASAP.

Posted by Eric Pobirs at August 8, 2004 08:06 PM

The cable and satellite companies will have to think about more than just channels ala carte. If my finances allowed I'd currently get Showtime but there is really only one item on there driving that desire. All the other material is merely so-so. That item is 'Dead Like Me.' As it stands, getting the DVD box set for the second season when it arrive will be less expensive than subscribing to Showtime for the same period of time. Especially since there is a competitive market and promotions for DVD box sets you don't get with cable TV channels.

If I could download the 'Dead Like Me' episodes for a reasonable price I would at least consider it.

Posted by Eric Pobirs at August 8, 2004 08:11 PM

I think a lot of people are missing the point on why the cable companies are digging in their heels on this one. Cable companies(in combination with advertisers) don't want people choosing only the stations they want because it will sharply cut into ad revenues, as those are based on channel ratings. Cable companies also make lots of local revenue on local ads inserted into blank adspace on non-local channels.

Anyway the upshot is that if people only have the channels they want, it will drastically affect advertising revenue in a way that can never be made up by pricing(unlike the a la carte channel choice, which could be made up via various pricing schemes)

Posted by dex at August 8, 2004 09:31 PM

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