The “A La Carte” Wars Come to an End

by on April 12, 2019 · 0 comments

A decade ago, a heated debate raged over the benefits of “a la carte” (or “unbundling”) mandates for cable and satellite TV operators. Regulatory advocates said consumers wanted to buy all TV channels individually to lower costs. The FCC under former Republican Chairman Kevin Martin got close to mandating a la carte regulation.

But the math just didn’t add up. A la carte mandates, many economists noted, would actually cost consumers just as much (or even more) once they repurchased all the individual channels they desired. And it wasn’t clear people really wanted a completely atomized one-by-one content shopping experience anyway.

Throughout media history, bundles of all different sorts had been used across many different sectors (books, newspapers, music, etc.). This was because consumers often enjoyed the benefits of getting a package of diverse content delivered to them in an all-in-one package. Bundling also helped media operators create and sustain a diversity of content using creative cross-subsidization schemes. The traditional newspaper format and business is perhaps the greatest example of media bundling. The classifieds and sports sections helped cross-subsidize hard news (especially local reporting). See this 2008 essay by Jeff Eisenach and me for details for more details on the economics of a la carte.

Yet, with the rise of cable and satellite television, some critics protested the use of bundles for delivering content. Even though it was clear that the incredible diversity of 500+ channels on pay TV was directly attributable to strong channels cross-subsidizing weaker ones, many regulatory advocates said we would be better off without bundles. Moreover, they said, online video markets could show us the path forward in the form of radically atomized content options and cheaper prices.

Flash-forward to today. As this Wall Street Journal article points out, online video providers are rejecting a la carte and recreating content bundles to keep a diversity of programming flowing. This happened in unregulated markets without any FCC rules. YouTube, Hulu, PlayStation, and many other online video providers are creating new bundles and monetization schemes.

It is also worth noting that this same sort of “re-bundling” of content is happening with online news sources and other digital platforms as various sites struggle to find content monetization schemes that can sustain diverse, high-quality content in the Digital Era. Content bundling and various paywall schemes are helping them do so.

The lesson here is that the economics of content creation and delivery are quite dynamic, challenging, and extremely hard to predict. Mandating “a la carte” unbundling of content sounded smart and well-intentioned to many people a decade ago, but it proved to be problematic even in highly competitive online markets. Thankfully, we did not mandate unbundling by law. We waited and watched to see how it naturally played out in various markets. We now have a better feel for how big of a mistake mandatory a la carte would have likely been in practice.

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