Some Economics of Cable Content Bundling

Lynne Kiesling

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.

One thought on “Some Economics of Cable Content Bundling

  1. IMO, this was a battle for last century. Cable TV providers will morph into “fat pipe” providers within the decade or they’ll die. With its NBC purchase, Comcast may be trying its hand at the next level of content intermediation, but IMO it just bought a buggy-whip manufacturer. Sort of a reverse Time-Warner AOL deal. Today, we have content producers selling to networks, selling to cable companies, selling to consumers. IMO, that’s at least one too many layers.

    Going forward, regulators must prevent monopoly “pipe providers” from influencing what’s carried over the pipes and from forcing bundling. That’s about it.

    Best practice for electricity market design separates distribution and delivery from generation. IMO, best practice for ISP regulation will keep pipe providers from messing with content.

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