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Breaking the Cable Company's Bundles

Two, enjoying the 10 or 20 channels you do regularly watch gets difficult when you have to navigate among 100, 200 or 300 others on your TV's screen. The traditional grid listing of TV channels and the standard remote-control keypad start to break down -- especially in the slow, ugly and cluttered interfaces of the average cable or satellite box.

Three, there's the fundamental irritation of having to subsidize ever more things you don't like. Why is it my job to keep QVC in business when there's this thing called the Internet that handles home shopping so much better? Why should my wife and I, graduates of Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East schools, have to chip in for the Big Ten Network?

I'd call these bundles a corporate-run welfare program, but that would not be fair: You have to get off welfare at some point.

Meanwhile, the Web keeps teaching us that we don't have to buy culture in bulk. You don't need to buy an entire album when Amazon and iTunes will sell you only the songs you want. You can watch only the TV shows you enjoy at a site like Hulu.

Some TV providers have taken baby steps to keep things in check. For example, Comcast has refused the entreaties of sports networks for carriage on its standard bundles, instead reserving such newcomers as the NFL Network and the Fox Soccer Channel to a $5-a-month optional add-on.

The satellite provider Dish Network lets viewers save $5 a month by opting out of the local channels they can watch off the air for free. It also offers a $29.99 bundle of only high-definition channels.

But the industry as a whole needs to get over the bundling concept. There's no longer any technological requirement for these huge packages. The digital systems of all the major services, unlike analog cable boxes, are perfectly capable of providing a customized feed and billing users appropriately.

At some point, one of these companies will realize that. In the meantime, you have the option of building your own bundle: Cancel your TV service, then combine over-the-air digital TV, downloads from iTunes and Amazon, free streaming from Hulu and the networks' Web sites, and DVD rentals from Netflix and others.

That's not an easy switch, especially if you're uncomfortable with plugging a computer into a TV. But paying more every year for the TV industry's broken business model isn't getting any easier, either.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.http://


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