CBS and Time Warner win; viewers lose in cable dispute

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Not a sports fan? Tough. You won't receive Disney's channels unless you pony up about $5 a month — the largest amount of any cable channel — for ESPN and its various offshoots. Fox has nearly a dozen of its own sports channels to force down your throat.

Don't speak Spanish or Chinese or Korean? That's tough as well. You're paying for foreign-language channels.

Cable companies, meanwhile, for all their talk of safeguarding subscribers' interests, are no better than programmers. Time Warner Cable makes Southern California subscribers pay $4 a month for its Lakers channel regardless of whether they want it. It'll presumably do the same with its new Dodgers channel next year.

Comcast runs the world's largest cable network. It also owns NBC, 15 cable channels, 13 regional sports and news networks and more than 60 international channels.

The entire system is rigged to keep consumers paying as much as possible for hundreds of channels they likely never watch. According to the ratings company Nielsen, the average pay-TV subscriber watches only about 17 channels on a regular basis.

For all their PR blather about being the consumer's best buddy, both programmers and distributors want nothing so much as to keep fleecing people by selling them products they don't want.

The solution is obvious: an end to bundling and the introduction of a la carte programming. Let the market decide which channels sink or swim and at what prices.

Critics of a la carte say it would cause the average cost of channels to skyrocket and would curtail programming diversity because smaller niche channels would no longer survive.

I don't buy those arguments. If the monthly cost of ESPN were to soar to $30, as some have predicted, subscribers would fall away in droves until either the channel came up with a more realistic business model or someone else managed to offer sports at a more reasonable price.

That would no doubt involve sports teams and universities no longer soaking fans with ridiculously expensive licensing agreements.

And if the market for a Golf Channel or a Military History Channel turned out to be too small for such programming to be viable as a cable network, they'd just have to do what other niche players have done: Find a new life on YouTube, Hulu or some other online venue.

In any case, we'll never know whether a la carte will work unless we give it a try. I nominate California as the nation's lab rat.

Otherwise, we'll see more schoolyard fights like the one between Time Warner and CBS. There wasn't even a knock-out: Each company walked away with nothing worse than a black eye.

The rest of us will be nursing our wounds for years to come.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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