Will Canada adopt à la carte cable?

For years Canadians have been paying cable and satellite providers for channels that we don’t watch. Worse yet, most probably don’t know that when we pay our bills, our cash is put towards the programming of those same channels that we already live without.

Yes, we non-golfers contribute directly to the fortunes of The Golf Channel.

But imagine a world where you choose only the channels you want to pay for in a cable package. It’s already a reality in Europe and the U.S. is looking to follow their lead.

Leading the charge for à la carte packages is Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin J. Martin, who is pressuring cable companies on behalf of efforts from advocacy groups seeking choice in their fight for decency on television.

The decency on TV debate has heated up ever since that infamous Janet Jackson boob flash at 2004’s Super Bowl. The argument for “family friendly” programming is subjective at best, but in the interests of a free marketplace, the argument for customer choice is a valid one. Shouldn’t certain cable customers be able to excise channels with sex, profanity and violence without having to abandon television all together? Or if other customers only want sports- and news-related programming, shouldn’t they be able to subscribe to those networks without paying for the excess?

Predictably, U.S. cable companies are fearful of the prospect of change. They argue that the amount and quality of speciality channels would shrink because the current system has the larger networks subsidizing the smaller ones.

In Canada, as well as the U.S., this is probably the biggest stumbling block. While many wouldn’t miss the niche genre programming — like the aforementioned Golf Channel — important public service channels like CPAC or the CBC might find their fortunes dwindle on an à la carte subscription format. Argue all that you want about the virtues of the CBC or PBS, but I think the public is better served by having a broadcaster that can air service programs without the need to generate profit — that means news programs that dare to criticize major advertisers, too. With the newfound consumer choice, there may be a need to find some protection for these important public services.

However, it seems eventual that à la carte plans will be available in the near future. Already video in demand is hugely popular and U.S. networks are selling their individual shows via Apple’s iTunes and in Canada. The subscription model will radically bust the boom in specialty channels, and broadcasters will have to find ways not only to reach and retain their audiences on a program-to-program basis, but for their entire network as well.

I say, right on, bring on the competition and choice.

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