Cable viewers have long complained about paying ever-higher bills for hundreds of channels they don't want to watch. Now some cable companies are beginning to agree.

Verizon and Cablevision are publicly pressing media companies that own the programming to stop pushing them to distribute unwanted channels and instead offer cable bundles based on what viewers actually watch.

If successful, the efforts could lead to cheaper options for consumers and a sea change in how the television industry has done business - and protected its profits - for more than two decades.

Such change has become necessary, Cablevision and other cable companies argue, as more Americans cut their cable cord in favor of cheaper Web-based video provided by Netflix, Apple and Today, 5 million households get their television solely from the Internet, up from 2 million in 2007, according to Nielsen.

But Hollywood and media companies have said that breaking up the bundles would lead to the demise of smaller niche programming that does not have mass-market appeal.

Analysts say it is too early to tell whether the spat between cable firms and their media partners will lead to lower bills or the long-sought goal of consumer advocates: a la carte TV.

Even the federal government has failed in its efforts to persuade the television industry to charge viewers only for what they watch.

The dispute is being closely watched because it has broad implications for consumers, as well as for the way television is funded and created.

"This is the beginning," said Gene Kimmelman, a former senior antitrust official at the Justice Department. "If the conflict between cable distributors and content owners persists and prices keep rising, there will be enormous market pressure to begin unbundling offerings, give consumers more choices and, from my perspective, ultimately let consumers control what they buy and how much they pay."

Late last month, Cablevision took its case to a federal court in New York, suing Viacom - owner of Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon, among other programming - for forcing the cable company to buy and distribute 14 channels that are barely watched, including VH1 Classic and Logo.

The penalty for not carrying those channels is more than $1 billion. The suit was cheered by a host of other cable providers, including Time Warner and DirecTV.

"This anti-consumer abuse of market power is a key reason cable bills continue to rise and programming choice remains limited," Cablevision said in a news release.