Verizon's recent announcement that it will allow cable viewers to save money by buying a channel package without sports stations is a step in a welcome direction toward more consumer choice.
As the Tribune's Richard Mullins reports, doing without sports channels such as ESPN can save you $15 a month. That's not much to pay to see the big games, but if you're not watching them, it's wasted money.
Over five years, you would spend $900 for the sports channels you had to buy just to get other channels in the bundle. The question is frequently asked, how much could I save if I were allowed to buy just the 10 or 20 channels I really want, and drop the hundreds I never even linger on when channel surfing?
That question is encouraged by occasional reports that surface saying the TV cartel is going to be broken by a new business model that will give viewers the freedom to choose by the channel or even by the show. The Washington Post reports that cable TV seems "ripe for disruption," because more people are watching video from the Internet.
Intel is rumored to be working on a set-top box that will allow users to buy just the channels they want. Google, Apple, Microsoft and others are also mentioned as potential providers.
One major catch is that companies controlling the programming don't have to sell their content to a rival who would break apart their profitable bundles.
"When you turn on your television,'' reports The Atlantic magazine, "there is a 95 percent chance that the channel you tune in to will be owned by one of just seven media companies … The Big Seven use their oligopolistic power to drive a hard bargain."
The major players are financially and politically powerful and have plenty of reasons to refuse to allow the Internet to split up and devalue their products.
So video consumers are left with limited choices, unlike other products in digital format, such as music or publishing.
We doubt TV viewers will soon get the freedom to buy only what they want, the way they buy a single MP3 song without buying an entire CD or one book without having to buy a whole basket of books they'll never read.
If TV were sold that way, no one knows what the price of single popular channel might be, or even how many channels would survive real competition.
It can be argued that all-out competition would be bad for consumers because many specialized channels with limited viewers would shut down, and the price of the few channels you want would be surprisingly high.
Although not yet disruptive, the video material available for free or at discount prices on the Internet does appear to be affecting the TV market. Nielsen has reported that the 2010-11 saw TV viewing in decline for the first time in 20 years.
However TV billing evolves, someone must pay for the high cost of producing new shows and sports events. And you must also pay for running fiber optic cable or copper wire to your house.
The idea that valuable information can be delivered for free is naïve. A more relevant question is the proper role of government regulation in cable TV and the Internet as communication sources merge.
Law professor Susan P. Crawford, writing in Yale Law and Policy, notes that "when broadcast, voice, cable, and even newspapers are just indistinguishable bits flowing over a single, monopoly-provided fat pipe to the home, how should public goals of affordability, ubiquity, access to emergency services and nondiscrimination be served? And what happens to diversity, localism, and the civic function of journalism?"
So far, the Tampa-St. Petersburg area is well served by healthy and competitive media companies. Verizon's decision to wire Tampa and surrounding areas with fast fiber-optic cable also has given the region a competitive edge.
Now the unbundling of sports from the most popular TV packages is fresh evidence that the future holds more choice, not less. And it suggests that a new layer of regulation would be at best premature.