A La Carte Nonsense

by on July 26, 2005 · 6 comments

I’m not too surprised to see populist interest groups on the right and left jump on an intellectually incoherent but crowd-pleasing proposal like “a la carte” cable, but Matt Yglesias should know better.

What everyone seems to miss in this debate is that a cable channel isn’t like a banana. If every grocery store somehow forced you to buy a banana with every orange, the banana-orange bundle would be more expensive than a banana or an orange alone, and a lot of bananas and oranges would end up in the garbage.

But a cable channel is a non-rivalrous good. The marginal cost of providing it to another consumer is zero. The goal of the cable company is to recover it’s rather large fixed costs in equipment, programming, etc. It will price its products so that it is able to recover those costs along with a profit margin.

To simplify things, let’s imagine that a cable company has only two channels, Spike TV and Women’s Entertainment, and only two kinds of customers, men and women. Men value STV at $10 and WE at $4. Women value WE at $10 and STV at $4. The cable company might bundle the channels together and charge $12 for the bundle. Each consumer would be getting $14 of TV for $12.

Now, people like Yglesias seem to assume that in an a la carte world make each channel would cost, say, $6. In that case, men would buy only STV, women would buy only WE, and consumers would save a bunch of money.

But that’s absurd. The cable company would lose half of its revenue in that scenario, and would be unlikely to even be covering its fixed costs. More likely, it would set the price for each channel at $10. The cable company would still be losing a lot of revenue, but that might be enough to keep it in business.

But notice that both the consumer and the cable company loses in this scenario. Before, the cable company was getting $12/subscriber, now it’s getting $10. The male consumer, meanwhile, went from getting $14 of TV for $12 to getting $10 of TV for $10. There might be a show he likes on WE, but not that he likes enough to pay twice as much for his cable bill.

Bundling increases consumer welfare by distributing low-marginal-cost goods to wider audiences. A la carte cable wouldn’t save consumers money. It would simply reduce the number of channels on their TVs. Buying twice as many cable channels isn’t like buying twice as many bananas.

It might be objected that the cable company does pay a per-viewer fee to the studio for those channels. But that’s just the same phenomenon one step removed. How do the studios price their channels when selling them to the cable company? Their marginal costs are also close to zero, so the same bundling argument above applies to them. If they gave their customers the option of buying channels a la carte, they’d have to dramatically raise their per-subscriber rates to cover their fixed costs. Consumers would be the loser–paying about the same for a much smaller variety of channels.

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