Cable TV

How much would it cost to get your favorite channels a la carte?

Jonathan Gelber | Getty Images

Americans are tired of flipping channels.

Viewers only use a small handful of the dozens of channels they pay for in traditional cable bundles. "Slim bundles" focusing on a smaller selection of channels are becoming more popular, but many analysts believe the economics of the cable industry will make true "a la carte" channels impossible.

That's because most people paying for a given channel—say, ESPN—aren't actually watching it, and those people are helping subsidize the cost for those who do.

As the cable industry meets this week in Chicago for its big annual convention, CNBC Digital decided to run the numbers. If we assume that only those who watch a channel would buy it a la carte, we can calculate how much those viewers would have to pay to maintain the same per-subscriber revenue that bundled channels like ESPN enjoy today.

For example, 24 percent of cable subscribers watch ESPN, according to Nielsen data, but all cable subscribers pay $6.04 to have that channel in their bundle, according to data from SNL Kagan. If only that 24 percent paid, they would have to be charged $25 each.

Here's how the math works out for 87 other cable channels, with those that are either more than $8 a month when unbundled or have less than 3 percent viewership highlighted in red.

If Americans chose 17 channels a la carte—the number that they actually use—their "a la carte bundles" would cost between $16 for the cheapest channels and $248 for the most expensive.

ESPN Classic comes in at the top of the list because it has such a small weekly viewership, and yet costs about 21 cents each month. The most expensive channels tend to be sports channels, which are both costly to produce and consumed by a tiny sliver of the overall cable audience.

Of course, those same networks could bring in massive viewerships for short periods during big events like the Super Bowl, and consumers may be willing to pay just to watch when those events come up.

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It is interesting to note that although other analyses have put the a la carte price of ESPN at $35 per household, the channel is included in Dish's Sling TV package, which costs $20 a month. An ESPN spokesperson said the company doesn't comment on this type of analysis.

Additionally, while some a la carte channels may be able to draw consumers at the unbundled prices, many of those channels are owned by broadcast networks that have no interest in unbundling their cable offerings.

"We believe that the broadcast network owners are not dumb and will protect the economics of their hand," wrote researchers at MoffettNathanson in a recent analysis of a la carte channels. "No one should ever expect to see pure a la carte," firm co-founder Craig Moffett said recently.

The networks would rather use their larger, more popular properties to keep the smaller ones viable. That's the way television has always worked, said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media.

"It's been kind of a successful model for a long, long time, and I don't really think that's going to change too much," said Adgate.