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What Is a la Carte TV?
By Swanni

Washington, D.C. (March 6, 2013) - Editor's Note: TV's Answer Man, aka Swanni, takes your questions regarding how to best use the latest products and services in TV technology. If you have a question about TV technology, ask TV's Answer Man by sending an e-mail to

Q. I hate that my cable bill keeps going up! I read that something called a la carte would fix that, but I couldn't figure out from the story what a la carte TV actually meant. Can you help me, TV Answer Man? -- Aimee, Forestville, Maryland.

Aimee, I sure can. A la Carte TV is the term used to describe the concept of allowing pay TV subscribers to only pay for the channels they want to watch. Instead of ordering a pre-set package of channels from your cable or satellite operator, you would buy the channels individually.

For instance, you might buy ESPN for $5.99 a month; CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox for $3.95 each; FX for $2.99; your regional sports channel for $9.99 and so on.

Sounds fair, right? Why pay for a package of channels that includes some that you don't want?

Well, fair isn't always feasible and that's the case with a la Carte TV. If the cable or satellite operators offered channels on an individual basis, two things would likely happen.

One, to ensure they keep their profits high, the pay TV operators would price the individual channels at rates higher than you might expect. ESPN wouldn't likely be $5.99 a month; it would probably be closer to $10 or more. Why? With subscribers ordering fewer channels overall via a la Carte, the pay TV services would have to charge accordingly to maintain the same revenue level.

Two, niche channels such as the Military Channel, the NHL Network, ESPN Classic, the Cooking Channel and many others would likely be dropped from your lineup because they wouldn't generate enough revenue.

You may say so what, but everyone has a favorite niche channel. I always tell people that everyone has a list of his or her 10 favorite channels; about seven of those channels are probably the same on most lists, but the last three are always different and they are the niche channels. You might like cooking. I like baseball. You'll want the Cooking Channel. I'll want the Major League Baseball channel.

With program bundles, the pay TV services make enough money to keep the niche channels on. But if a la Carte was the norm, they could only afford to offer channels that generated a certain level of revenue -- and that would be bad news for the small, niche networks.

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