Capn Design
The Cost of A La Carte Telvevision
January 30, 2006

Update (1/31/06): I've updated some of the numbers based on comments and a glaring omission on my part (The Daily Show). The difference is MUCH more prominent now.

When iTunes announced they would be selling TV shows online, I explained that I wasn't terribly excited. The quality was bad and it seemed too expensive.

Being the nerd I am, I broke down the cost of downloading every episode of every show I watch for a whole year. This only includes episodes of shows I have season passes for on my Tivo. It does not include any sports or shows that I happen to watch if they're on (*ahem* Project Runway). Also worth noting is that I estimated the number of episodes based on previous seasons.

As of right now, my yearly cable bill comes to $648 ($54 a month). If I were to download my shows online, it would cost $800, which is a difference of $492 or $41 a month. The difference isn't ridiculous, but if you tack on the cost of watching live television (sports, awards shows, etc.) it will add up quickly. I'm not sure how the pricing would work there, but I currently pay about $200 a year for NFL Sunday Ticket, which is every NFL game (that amount was not included in the $648).

If the cost initially seems negligable, consider the fact that I live with 3 other people, who also have shows recording on Tivo. If I had included their shows in the total, it would have easily topped $1,000.*

Here is the breakdown of all the shows I watch:

Arrested Development20$40
The OC24$48
American Idol24$48
Curb Your Enthusiasm10$20
The Wire12$24
The Sporanos13$26
Malcolm in the Middle22$44
Sealab 202112$24
Chappelle's Show15$30
Da Ali G Show12$24
Meet the Press40$80
Aqua Teen Hunger Force15$30
Good Eats24$48
Inside the NFL21$42
The Office24$48
Love Monkey16$32
The Daily Show168$336
Total Episodes570$1,140
Money Currently Spent$648

* I won't get into the possibility of sharing downloads as that's a whole post unto itself.


Comments (21 comments so far)

Comment #1:

You watch Meet the Press?

Comment #2:

Yep. Not every week, but usually. It's one of the few news shows I can tolerate.

Comment #3:

Meet The Press is available as a free podcast from NBC (audio only).

Comment #4:

Yeah, there's definitely a cut off of some sort -- above the line and A La Carte costs too much, below and it's a great deal.

I'm below the line, so I'm just waiting until I can cancel my cable and live the All A La Cart life.

But it's gonna be a while. :-)

Comment #5:

I like the idea of paying per show, partly due to the fact that I would watch less tv (and certainly less crap). Jason Kottke asks how would you find new shows and I think that it would work much as it does now with music only it would be much easier becuase there are som many fewer shows than albums coming out each year.

Comment #6:

Note that buying full seasons of TV shows on iTunes is also more expensive (with worse quality) than buying the same seasons on DVD (well, with the exception of HBO's extortionally-priced Sopranos sets). Most shows are out on DVD only a couple of months after the season ends on the air or cable, with better picture/sound quality plus extra features. Not as timely as iTunes, which is itself not as timely as cable/broadcast.

I can see iTunes video being useful for catching up on a missed show (especially for those without TiVo), or auditioning new viewing, or having stuff to watch on a train or plane, but not replacing cable.

Comment #7:

Finding new shows with a la carte opens up a new marketing avenue for networks. Offer ad time on the downloads to competing networks. Maybe?

I'd love to just pay for the channels I use. Live is fine. I have a Tivo.

Comment #8:

One cost offset that I might point out is the TiVo monthly service, for those who don't opt for the (more frugal) lifetime service. That levels the playing field a little bit and seems reasonable to include since you'll have digital files both ways.

Also, a cost saving measure to point out: keep watching critically acclaimed shows like "Arrested Development" as they get canceled prematurely, resulting in shorter seasons.

Comment #9:


Can you do the match on what it would cost to get these programs on DVD? Wonder what the savings are here over viewing on cable and iTunes.

I was similarly excited about ala carte programming, but the pricing issue isn't a good one. Additionally, 30-minute episodes and 60-minute episodes cost the same amount. What gives with that?

Have also heard that networks are trying to figure out how to include ads in their ala carte programming. Don't know that this will come to iTunes, but it's something broadcasters are pining for...

Comment #10:

A) Yeah this is just a nitpick, but 24 is officially 24 shows. This season premiered with 2 shows on Sunday and 2 shows on Monday. So if you COULD download them from iTunes they would charge you for each ep and it would be $4 more (24 is not yet on iTunes)

B) Also just think about the prices when they would charge you $2 for a 15 minute show (Sealab 2021, ATHF), $2 for half an hour (Arrested Development), $2 for an hour (24, Lost) and $2 for a 90 minute show (SNL).

ATHF would cost roughly 20 cents a minute (10 minutes show time) whereas it would be 2.5 cents/min for SNL (75 min?). (took out time for the commercials)

Comment #11:

You watch quite a bit of television. Are you addicted? $54 a month is a lot to spend on a time-consuming, unproductive habit.

Comment #12:

That Sporanos show sure sounds cool :)

Comment #13:

Hey Invisible Man question: spending 20 hours a day in front of your computer is productive?

Capn love your viewing habits I watch Meet the Press as well Tim Russert is the toughest interview in DC, and makes the whole show worthwhile.

Gotta nix Love Monkey though - Entourage has this "Sex in the City for Men" genre covered...

Comment #14:

There are 24 episodes of 24 hence the name "24" (24 1 hour episodes)

Comment #15:


I'm not sure how finding new shows after switching to A La Carte would "work much as it does now with music". The most common ways that a person would find out about new music would be a) radio, b) MTV, c) reviews, d) word of mouth from friends, e) a live show. I really only see Reviews working in that sense, as none of the others really have analogues in the television market.

Comment #16:

For clarity's sake, I changed the numbers at this point in the discussion.

Comment #17:

carpboy: What about video blogs, similar to music blogs. mblogs like music-for-robots have turned me onto many, many bands.

I see network websites + bloggers creating more than enough buzz to get shows off the ground.

Besides, MTV and radio aren't in the music business anymore and music sales are doing fine, right?

Comment #18:

Have you thought about breaking this down into free (network) and non-free (cable, premium) categories? It seems that that might be a more valid comparison since you're often compelled to pay for a lot of unnecessary channels just to get your daily fix of the Daily Show (or, Project Runway) and a la carte would be a nice alternative.

Actually, the main driver of the high cost of a la carte downloading is The Daily Show. Although this makes cable look like a good deal (it's the reason I can't get up the nerve to call Comcast and shut off my service), most of the episodes are posted for free on the web within less than 24 hours. Essentially then, you're paying for quality, convenience, and timeliness.

Comment #19:

Is this a fair comparison? Downloads from iTunes are commerical free. You're paying for cable twice, once with your cash, once your attention.

If ad supported shows made their way online, I suspect the cost would be far lower, or perhaps non-existant

Comment #20:

I didn't read through all the comments, but did someone note that a lot of these shows are on network TV. Scrubs, Lost, 24, SNL, American Idol, The OC, The Office...all of these are free.

Comment #21:

Interesting breakdown, but the choice isn't "TV or Download," the choice is "TV and/or Download," which makes all of the difference.


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About this Entry

This entry is titled "The Cost of A La Carte Telvevision" and was posted on January 30, 2006 at 10:29 am. It was posted in the category "Music\TV\Film\Media."

There have been 21 Comments and .