À La Carte: These Are the TV Channels People Would Actually Pay For

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The great unbundling of TV has begun, with HBO and Showtime offering their content via stand-alone subscriptions, and Sony announcing that it will soon offer consumers the ability to select individual channels for its PlayStation Vue TV subscription service. But which channels would consumers actually pay for if they could pick and chose?

The answer to that question may surprise you, and is bad news for at least some cable networks.

Take ESPN, for example. The Disney-owned sports network is often quoted as the prime reason for people not cutting the cord, and is by far the most expensive cable network. But a new survey from Digitalsmiths found that only 35.7% of consumers would add ESPN to their personal a la carte lineup of TV channels if they had the choice.

That’s far less popular than ABC, which would be picked by 66.7% of consumers, but also puts the network behind Discovery Channel (62%), History (57.7%), Comedy Central (43%) and even the Weather Channel (39.9%). Altogether, ESPN ranks 20th on the list of channels consumers chose as candidates for their a la carte lineup.

Which could explain why ESPN isn’t looking to go over-the-top any time soon. The sportscaster has been looking into niche online services, and started to sell subscriptions for the Cricket World Cup earlier this year. But it’s unlikely that ESPN would join Sony’s a la carte lineup — in part because the network would have to ask for hefty premiums: Right now, pay TV service providers are paying around $6 per subscriber for ESPN’s channels.

Other networks are more likely to benefit from unbundling, especially if they strike deals with companies like Sony to do the billing for them. Consumers are willing to pay $38 per month on average for their ideal lineup of channels, which on average consists of 17 channels.

Compare that with the money that consumers pay today, and it’s clear why people would rather have a choice: Close to 40% of consumers pay more than $125 per month for TV, Internet and home phone service per month, with 23.2% even paying more than $150 per month.

Altogether, 81.6% of consumers would prefer if they could pick their own channels.

A market research company working on behalf of Digitalsmiths quizzed 3,144 consumers in the U.S. and Canada for its Q1 2015 Video Trends Report. It’s worth noting that the company is a subsidiary of TiVo, which is increasingly looking to cater to cord-cutters. TiVo recently acquired the assets of controversial streaming TV startup Aereo and is now looking to relaunch Aereo as a law-abiding TV streaming solution.

Update: After the publication of this story, Digitalsmiths contacted Variety to notify us of an omission in their data. “It’s come to our knowledge that the survey company inadvertently left A&E Networks off the A El Cart question, causing them not to rank in the top networks consumers wanted in their ideal package. We have ensured that the network is apart of our Q2.”

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  1. Igor says:

    Great chart for who would be willing to keep what. Too bad it’s impossible to read unless you rotate it… which ain’t easy on a desktop screen.

  2. Jim says:

    How old were the respondents (History, Discovery, Animal Planet, Nat Geo)?

  3. Duane says:

    I find it hard to believe that Univision and Telemundo have a significantly larger interest than Starz/Encore; Cinemax and/or Showtime as those services do not even show up on the chart. As “premium” movie channels go, they may not be as large as HBO, but c’mon the cost of HBO compared to Starz/Encore for example should at least land that service somewhere between ION and QVC. Another unbelievable observation is that both CNN and MSNBC have a greater interest than FOX News Channel. Let’s just say that the chart doesn’t seem to pass the “fair and balanced” test….

  4. NHBill says:

    When thinking about the future of video streaming keep in mind that Apple has over $200 Billion in it’s checkbook.
    They are just now directly offering audio subscriptions for the very first time.
    It seems to me it’s only a matter of some additional time before they offer video subscriptions.
    I think they are just waiting for things to shake out a little more while they continue to negotiate with the content creators.
    Then look for them to become a content creator too.
    The equity rise for Netflix is too significant for Apple to continue to ignore.
    They could dig a few billion out from the couch cushions and become a major play overnight.
    Or just buy Disney.

  5. The idea thing would to be just stick an antenna on your roof to zero in on the local network stations, which would include a number of independents such as Antenna TV along with the other networks. And then choose from the cable services.

    I live in a rural area and reception is lousy without putting an antenna up on the roof. And this is what I would do but because of health problems, my roof climbing and wiring days are over with. Frankly, I think if someone wanted to go into the business of installing good antenna systems with DVR, they could probably do well these days. The cost of an installation would probably be paid for with what you would have spent on cable or satellite in that time. Whatever I would want out of the cable networks, I would get what I could on line at a reasonable rate and that would be that. Even if it was only Amazon Prime, Netflix, or Hulu.

    The only other drawback in the plan is that most of us are still subjected to a monopoly for our high speed internet and who know what they are going to come up with to throw a monkey wrench in the machine.

  6. Jw says:

    Sling TV OTT service has ESPN and the rest of the ESPN family

    • JR Chance says:

      And it has noting on it but trash, re-runs marathons and the worthless ESPN-Disney-Adult Swim. I tested the Sling service and it is not worth 1.00 a month!

  7. nerdrage says:

    $38/month is still to high. For half that, I get Netflix streaming plus DVD, which gets me, well, everything. Except live events like news and sports, but I get my news from the internet and don’t give a flip about sports.

    The whole discussion of channels is nonsense. Viewers don’t want channels, they want specific shows. ABC is highest on the list because viewers are thinking about the shows they watch on ABC that they like. A more enlightening list would have the individual shows people would pay for and how much.

    That’s the future – a streaming service that has enough breadth of offerings that we can all assemble our personalized Me Channel from it. If the service is global, it will be able to amortize content costs across a much larger audience than domestic, and keep subscription costs down ($10-$12 range is workable). Another way to drive down costs is to cut out the middlemen and streamline the distribution system. I’m basically describing Netflix and whatever competitors surviving the coming shakeout.

    • Kem says:

      I’m not ready to give up channels just yet. I’m always willing to give new shows on HBO and FX a chance simply because those two networks have a reputation for producing more hits than misses. If it’s on HBO or FX, then there’s a good chance that it’s worth watching. I’m willing to pay for those channels, not just individual shows, for that reason alone.

    • Claymation says:

      You, sir, are a genius. I bow to your superior grasp of what TV should, and likely will, be.

  8. Ron says:

    This doesn’t mention what price they would pay, saying that people would pay for The Weather Channel (which was just replaced on certain satellite companies) and for HBO is not entirely helpful.

  9. Richard says:

    We as lazy consumers have sat by as cable companies have gouged us for decades for even basic over the air available channels and have used the expensive to provide ESPN as a reason for high prices . We were told the demand for ESPN was so great that it had to be included in every package….turns out no such demand. I personally have never watched a ESPN . We should start a class action suit over this fraud.

    • nerdrage says:

      Or just cut the cord if you don’t care about sports. Netflix streaming + DVD gives you everything imaginable, way more than you could ever watch, for $16/month.

  10. Holt says:

    Espn 2, ESPN 3, Logo and Bravo are doomed under this scenario.

    • nerdrage says:

      ESPN isn’t doomed. Most people don’t care about sports but those who do, care a lot. The future will have three or so major streaming services with a global footprint (Netflix, Amazon, fill-in-the-blank, no not Hulu) plus a few specialty services with unique enough content that they can survive as add-ons to the majors. HBO and ESPN are two of the very few brands for which that strategy might work.

      Niche channels like Logo may go under because of Netflix’s niche-audience strategy. If you want to see gay-friendly programming, there’s always Orange is the New Black and Sense8. And I’m sure more to come. Netflix doesn’t compete in the sports niche, leaving the field clear for ESPN.

  11. No way to read the chart. No way to link to the chart.

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