Cable Market Power For Dummies

Most folks outside of Washington DC still find their cable company an obnoxious monopoly, despite the presence of competitors like DirecTV, Dish Network, and the occassional overbuilder like RCN. But, despite the fact that customers express far more satisfaction with satellite and overbuilder service, most folks remain subscribed to cable. What gives? And how does cable get away with raising prices and favoring affiliated programming in the face of this “vigorous competition.” Needless to say, the cable folks respond with a host of fancy economic papers that they file with the FCC and present to members of Congress.

My own impression, having spoken with a number of economists, is that the Cable Cos use economics the same way Creationists use intelligent design. The point isn’t to engage in real scientific inquiry. The point is to throw enough scientific sounding stuff out there to confuse the issue and make people believe there are two equally valid sides to the debate. My problem is that the FCC and Congress usually end up playing the the Dover School District Board rather than Judge Jones.

Anyway, in an attempt to cut through some of the nonesense, MAP released a white paper of my authorship yesterday: “The Switching Equation” and Its Impact on the Video Proramming Market and MVPD Pricing. As you can tell by the title, even an attempt to write a simple, plain language version of this ends up more complicated than I’d like. (Sad fact is, economics is hard.)

So here’s the short version — most people find it such a pain in the butt to switch from one service to another that they will put up with higher prices, worse programming, and worse customer service rather than kill two days futzing with unsubscribing to cable and resubscribing to someone else. As long as cable doesn’t stink too badly, they can keep enough market power to make it even harder for competitors by cutting exclusive deals for regional sports programming and jacking up the price of video on demand to competitors (Comcast and Time Warner own 78% of iN Demand, the leading supplier of VoD). If we want real competition, we need to have rules that actually address market power and make it easier for people to switch to competitors. Otherwise, we get a lot of empty rhetoric about “level playing field” and “free market” and blah blah, and we still pay ridiculously high prices for cable and broadband service that still suck.

You want proof? Go read the paper.

Stay tuned . . .

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3 Comments

  1. John says:

    Good stuff. Reminds me of when I was back there in Grad school, reading economics papers. . .

    Perhaps more thoughtful comment from me a little later on. . .

    Maybe. . .

  2. If you want much more on the economics of markets where switching is costly, check out the “switching costs” paper (under “Recent working papers”–yes, academia moves slowly) on my page,

    http://elsa.berkeley.edu/%7

    Joseph Farrell
    Professor of Economics
    Chair Competition Policy Center

  3. Harold says:

    This paper looks fantastic and extraordinarily useful. Thank you very much.

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