Jim Surowiecki has a New Yorker column on cable bundling that does a good job of explaining some of the reasons why bundling benefits all interested parties in the transaction — the cable provider, the content provider, and the consumer. His analysis provides several examples of comparing a policy with the most likely counterfactual, as in this discussion of a la carte pricing:
So consumer advocates have been pushing for a system of so-called “à la carte” programming, expecting that this would drive down prices for consumers.
In fact, it probably wouldn’t. The simple argument for unbundling is: “If I pay sixty dollars for a hundred channels, I’d pay a fraction of that for sixteen channels.” But that’s not how à-la-carte pricing would work. Instead, the prices for individual channels would soar, and the providers, who wouldn’t be facing any more competition than before, would tweak prices, perhaps on a customer-by-customer basis, to maintain their revenue.
He then points out two consumer-focused reasons why the demand for a la carte options has never been sufficient to bring them to market. First, it’s very common for people to prefer bundles because they reduce transactions costs and search costs; second, bundles create option value for consumers (I don’t care about watching that channel right now, but I might in the future, so there’s a value to having it).
The appeal of bundling is partly that it reduces transaction costs: instead of having to figure out how much each part of a package is worth to you, you can make a blanket judgment. Bundling eliminates the problem of fretting about small expenditures, which may be one reason that flat-rate pricing is very common in the vacation industry (cruise ships, all-inclusive travel packages, and so on). It also offers what economists call option value: you may never watch those sixty other channels, but the fact that you could if you wanted to is worth something. Many consumers also perceive bundles as bargains; getting a bunch of things for one price feels like a deal, even when it’s not.
But in this era of disintermediation and ease of streaming TV and video, isn’t that likely to push consumers to want more a la carte options? Sure, and that’s why he argues that it is in the interest of cable providers and content providers to avoid the short-term profit-motivated bickering over fees (such as that between Scripps/HGTV-Feed Network and Cablevision) so they can maintain the long-term benefit of consumers who are interested in bundled goods.