Canada Takes Cable A La Carte, But Don't Expect U.S. To Follow

If you want to watch MTV, you have to pay for ESPN, even if you don't like sports. TV viewers often complain their expensive bills include packages of channels that are bundled together. Now, Canada's government is requiring cable companies to change their pricing system. But that's unlikely to happen in the U.S.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

If you want to watch MTV, you have to pay for ESPN, even if you don't want to watch sports, and a lot of cable customers don't like it. In the cable TV business, it's called bundling. Now, the government of Canada is requiring cable companies to take those bundles apart. NPR's Mandelit del Barco reports on why that is unlikely to happen in the U.S.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Channel surfing in, say, Montreal, you can find everything from American TV sitcoms to shows in French.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (French spoken)

UNDIENTIFIED MAN: ( French spoken)

BARCO: To local talk shows...

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW)

MOLLY: Welcome to "Chai With Molly."

BARCO: And cooking with the Wolfman on the Aboriginal People's Television Network.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: Canadians will soon have more choices in how to pay their cable bills. This week their government announced it will require cable and satellite TV service providers to offer what's known as a la carte pricing. Here's Canada's industry minister James Moore on CTV News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CTV NEWS BROADCAST)

JAMES MOORE: We don't think it's right for Canadians to have to pay for bundled television channels that they don't watch. We want to unbundle television channels and allow Canadians to pick and pay for the specific television channels that they want.

BARCO: The a la carte TV idea has been talked about for years in the U.S., but industry analyst Craig Moffett says it's unlikely to be replicated south of the Canadian border.

CRAIG MOFFETT: Unless you just blow up the whole business model - and look, there's plenty of people that would happily push the detonator themselves, but it's much, much easier said than done.

BARCO: Moffett says for one thing, cable companies and networks in the U.S. have complicated distribution agreements and First Amendment rights to run businesses the way they want. And politicians have been reluctant to regulate them, says analyst Howard Homenoff, especially if unbundling turns out to be more expensive for consumers.

HOWARD HOMENOFF: They'd be paying most likely far more on a per-channel basis than they would under the bundle today.

BARCO: For years, civil rights groups and independent programmers have feared that unbundling would wipe out the diverse smaller networks that are included in cable packages. They've argued that BET, for example, might never have had a chance to start up in an a la carte model. But Joe Torres of the public interest group Free Press says unbundling might actually be a good thing for communities of color.

JOE TORRES: I think this would be a boost to independent programming and diverse programming. I can have the ability of the public to choose me, instead of having to rely on corporate cable gatekeepers to decide whether you're going to carry me or not.

BARCO: Torres says by watching shows online whenever they want, viewers already are living in an a la carte world. Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

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