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Cable Channel Choice, When Less is More

USA Today reports that Cable TV companies have long said the "expanded-basic" package of channels that most viewers choose is a bargain. For about $41 a month, they note, you can see scores of channels, including CNN and ESPN.

Most of us, though, typically watch only 15 to 17 channels a month, according to industry estimates. Yet expanded basic continues to swell like a hot-air balloon � and so has its price. A few years ago, expanded basic offered about 35 channels; today, 200 to 300 channels are common. The price of expanded basic has jumped more than 40 percent in five years. In that time, overall prices for goods and services are up just 12 percent.

Now, thanks to new technology, shifting sentiment in Washington and deep-pocketed rivals such as AT&T and Verizon, the expanded-basic balloon might be about to pop. On the horizon: a la carte programming, which would let people buy only the channels they want and include special-interest packages for sports, news, hobbies and more.

The signs of change are global. Cable viewers in Spain, Italy, Canada and Hong Kong already can buy channels individually. In the United Kingdom, viewers can pick from scores of special-interest tiers of programming; some of them offer just a few channels.

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