An interesting conversation broke out on my friend Alanna’s facebook wall the other day. She works for a marketing firm, on account with a well-known premium cable company. The link she had posted had a lot to say about the future of cable as relates to streaming applications, and a spirited but civil debate about the future of television and cable broke out in the comments thread (a useful comments thread, imagine that). The main question posed to the assembled was when (not if) cable would be on the way out.
The last time I had cable was almost 5 years ago, and I can’t even really remember why I got it. I hadn’t lived in a home with a cable TV package since moving out of my parents house at eighteen. It probably had something to do with basketball, but soon, the ability to watch Spurs and occasional Mavericks or Rockets games didn’t seem worth the $100 charge Time Warner had levied on me, especially for a connection that broke down into digital distortion or cut out altogether semi-regularly. I returned the cable box before my lease was up, and I haven’t had a cable package since.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that I’m not the only one in this situation. This is an argument we all heard back in the late 1990s when Napster and filesharing began to threaten the recording industry status quo, but the mechanisms by which entertainment companies are lagging behind. I’ve been more or less opposed to piracy in theory if not in practice since the whole Napster debacle began (but admittedly, that was before I had a broadband connection), identifying with many actually well-known and successful artists who bristled at the thought of their work being traded freely over the Internet without their consent. It wasn’t about the money (for me, at least); the idea of a faceless public deciding for themselves what they did with my work made me see red. However, I also saw the logic in the put-upon consumer, who, only caring about two or three songs on a given album, bristled at the idea of shelling out $20 for what essentially amounted to a coaster outside of those few tracks.
We all know the story of music-browsing legitimacy, Spotify, iTunes, et al, but we can only wonder what’s going to happen with television. Once again, I’m opposed on a theoretical level (especially given that a project I am directly involved with is now a target of piracy), but I can see a certain kind of justification when it comes to premium television. An example from my own life: I liked Breaking Bad. I hadn’t really paid attention until the show was already in its 3rd season or so, giving me ample time to catch up on the DVD back catalogue. My internal chronology is spotty on how exactly the events unfolded, but I knew that once I had plowed through the DVDs, I basically just waited for the next season to finish up and hit discs as well, not wanting to go through the rigmarole and risk of pirating the episodes I hadn’t seen, and rationalizing that I wanted to be able to binge-watch giant chunks of the season at once, as I had done with The Wire a few years prior once that series had wrapped. My own ADD and other things kept me from jonesin’ too hard, and by the time season 5b (ugh) was ready to hit the airwaves, I was caught up and ready. I wanted to close out the end of this series that I had loved so much as it unfolded, and living in NYC, I had no faith that I would be able to avoid spoilers until the final season went out on DVD or netflix.
The only problem? Breaking Bad was broadcast on AMC, a cable channel, and I had no desire to install a cable hookup (one more tiny non-argument is that hooking up cable in new and old apartment buildings is an incredibly tedious and mind-numbingly annoying thing to arrange, but that’s neither here nor there) when I had no plans to watch 95% of the programming. I had Netflix, after all. Why should I have to buy the whole damn farm when all I wanted was one cow? With hypocrisy coursing through my veins, I downloaded (most) of the final episodes of Breaking Bad as they came out.
And y’know what? I don’t feel bad in the slightest. If there were any reasonable way to watch Breaking Bad a la carte (ie: without paying close to or over $100 for a cable package with a commitment), I would have happily paid it. As a consumer, I was given no reasonable option by which to purchase the thing I wanted. Yes, at its core, this argument is fraudulent, since creators and content providers are free to disseminate their media by any means they see fit, but I see no reason why I, the consumer, should have to shoulder the cost of a system that is inefficient and broken.
Getting back to the conversation on Alanna’s wall, live sports broadcast were a hot button topic. One commenter said that her household kept up their cable package AND their NFL Sunday Ticket premium service solely so her husband (bf? I can’t remember) could watch his games. That’s a lot of money to watch what essentially boils down to three full games of football per week for only a portion of the year, and blackout restrictions once again continue to protect a system of network affiliates that depend on the ability to exclusively show certain games in certain markets. This is less of an issue with the NFL in particular, as the limited number of games being shown at any one time combined with the massive popularity of the sport means that if you have an “all-inclusive” package like Sunday ticket, AND decent digital antenna, you can watch any of the out of market games AND any of the blacked-out in-market games (that will be broadcast on local networks). It gets much more annoying when dealing with NCAA football or the NBA, two leagues that have a crapload of teams that play a crapload of games. Thus, even though I have a subscription to NBA league pass, some games will ALWAYS be unavailable to me without a cable package. This gets even more annoying when the NBA progresses to the playoffs (doing some research, I found that consumers who have league pass as part of their cable package will get a certain number of playoff games through their subscription, which….seems close to utterly useless, being that they already have a damn cable package. No word on what stand-alone app users like myself get).
It seems as though premium networks like HBO see the writing on the wall with the rise of content providers like Netflix and Amazon. Quaint though it was, the notion of the public gathering as one to watch a broadcast of non-live show all over the country is going out the window in favor of economics and giving the consumer what they want. I fully believe that it’s only a matter of years before nearly every premium cable network offers a standalone streaming service.
Live sports are whole different animal, given how tangled up the system is with blackouts, local affiliates of networks owned by corporate media giants that stand to make a lot of money through the exclusive broadcast of certain games to certain areas, and the fact that sports are more or less the one thing that everybody wants to watch live. I put my money where my mouth was this year, and got subscriptions to both NBA League Pass and NFL Sunday ticket. Combined with my digital antenna, it makes for an (im)perfect solution to not having a cable package. As technology gets better and cheaper, it’s hard to imagine that they demand for this stuff won’t grow, but the networks certainly have the ball in their court (dumb sports metaphor very much intended) when it comes to doling out the content as they see fit.