For the cord-cutters and cable-company haters out there eagerly awaiting the next era of television, in which you no longer have to pay your provider for a bundled package of junk you never watch, YouTube officially launched 14 of its rumored pay-to-subscribe channels on Friday. And, sure, the site that taught us to love free viral videos might not provide the best top-shelf content just yet, but this is the dream of à la carte Internet TV — or at least a shell of it. (Just ask John McCain, who on Thursday afternoon proposed legislation that woud "provide consumers more control" and directly challenge the cable companies' over-packaging over your monthly bill.) Rather than pay $100-plus for 100-plus mostly empty stations, YouTube viewers can now pick and choose the offerings they want, starting at the very affordable price of at $0.99 a month per channel. Forget late-night boxing pay-per-view and useless, expensive sports channels: The new model, at least officially, has arrived.
Of course, there is one very big catch: If you're looking for must-see-TV kind of stuff, it's still not on YouTube. The big content providers aren't playing ball, and for all the reasons that they haven't provided people with debundled television — no matter how much everyone wants it. But the new paid channel offerings aren't just British YouTube nerds, either. There are legitimate channels that you might want to subscribe to: Parents without cable, for example, might pay $25 for a year's worth of Jim Henson offerings, including Fraggle Rock. (That must still be a kid favorite, right?) And if pay-per-view works for fighting, surely the fastest growing sport in America, UFC, can convince viewers to spend $5.99 for UFC Select. (At least it balances the paying field, since the masses have been subsidizing niche sports interests — and contracts — for years now.)
But You Tube — and, hopefully, the cable industry some day — might get better at this à la carte thing. The eventual hope is that more channels with better stuff will emerge as content creators realize they can make legitimate money by charging for an entire network of content online. After all, that's how cable was built — around stations of verticals, not just a horde of uselessness. YouTube declined to say how much of a cut it plans to offer each of its channel providers. Cable companies take about half from high-end stations like HBO. (From a $15-a-month subscription, HBO gets $7 or so.) Smaller channels that have some shows we like — say, IFC, with shows like Portlandia that got popular with YouTube clips, and new shows like Maron, which is about a podcast — could also be drawn to the YouTube "network." Cable companies have before threatened to cut off stations that don't bring in enough viewers, and for the right price, a place like YouTube could bring a niche audience to one of these endangered television species.
But unless proposed legislation like McCain's new Television Consumer Freedom Act passes, it's unlikely that the cable market will get unbundled any time soon — even if YouTube and the same cable content providers are making some money off the online channel deal. Indeed, McCain's efforts for "putting up a stop sign" regarding what he sees as the "unfair and wrong" choice forced upon us by cable providers — a big package, or nothing at all — have failed before. And as The Hill reports, the telecom lobby is already fighting back hard: "As countless studies have demonstrated, subscription bundles offer a wider array of viewing options, increased programming diversity and better value than per channel options," the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said in a statement. "In the face of such innovation and expansion, attempting to force retail models on private providers is unnecessary and counterproductive." Really, that's just a mask for the reality that cable's current bundles make everyone involved way too much money to actually dare and innovate or expand. But even if YouTube doesn't have the best stuff out there — you can check out its options here — it's encouraging to see the increasingly legitimacy of online platforms and pay models ... even as cable TV remains in the dark ages.