We’re facing another sea-change in how we consume entertainment. It used to be that Americans signed up for cable TV services and selected “packages,” collections of certain types of channels or content, for a monthly fee. But in the last few years, new channels outside of television, like Netflix, Hulu and many others, have given the TV channels a run for their money by offering their own original and compelling content.
The inauguration of Disney+ is significant, as it signals the media owner’s intention to pull the bulk of its content out of all other markets, to feature exclusively on its own (and Disney’s various properties are among the most popular in the industry). Already Universal and Paramount are planning to follow suit with their own new channels, while channels like HBO create their own high-quality original content. What this means is a lot of individual channels, which viewers will be forced to buy individually instead of through cable packages, versus the cable channels which will have less and less of the content that used to draw in their audiences.
For years, cable TV subscribers begged for an a-la-cart system of selecting just the channels they wanted to watch, with the idea that it would save them money. Cable companies resisted, preferring to sell their preset (and large) packages and demand a higher cost, and even going so far as to
bribe convince local governments to go along with their viewing monopolies. But as the independent channels are created, and other former-only-on-tv channels like HBO are creating online channels, it is getting increasingly realistic to give up on TV packages altogether and switch to the independents.
The question is: At what point do the independents end up costing the viewer as much—or potentially more—than paying for cable packages? Suppose you have a cable package that includes your basic local channels plus a few-hundred of the non-subscriber national channels (the Discovery channels, the Nickelodeons, Nat Geo, Syfy, MTV, TV Land, etc, etc, etc). In some areas, that package could be costing you more than $200 a month. Now, the independent channels are charging generally $7-10 a month to join. Do a little math: If you sign up for, say, 25 of these channels, you may end up paying more for them than your cable package. So you have to be clever about what channels you really want to buy.
And for those of us whose tastes are more… let’s say, eclectic… we may find ourselves given a choice of keeping an expensive cable package because none of the independent channels runs that one show we really like to watch… or paying for an independent channel just to watch that one show… or going full independent, and having to give up that one show none of the independents own…
I find myself rapidly approaching this ultimate decision, as the independents ramp up their content and exclusivity, as more and more shows premiere that sound very attractive to me, and as existing cable content gets more and more stale (Yardcrashers season 9, anyone?). Soon my wife and I will be forced to sit down, look at the options and choices, choose new and online channels for content, then figure out how best to continue to watch them on our nice, pretty TVs. And we’re the kind of couple that often wrestles with multiple persnickety remotes to figure out how to watch what we want; adding to that complexity will not a happy house make, and I guarantee will be figured into our ultimate decisions.
But maybe… just maybe… the cable companies have caught wind of what’s happening, and are actively working to stay in the game. Maybe they are hoping to strike deals with these independents and, just like they already do with the networks and non-subscriber channels, find a way to bundle the likes of the new network owners, Disney+ (ABC), Paramount (CBS), Peacock (NBC), the other subscriber channels like HBO, Starz, etc, etc, into new packages for their cable subscribers. Maybe, by the time my wife and I are about to switch, our company will offer us the new package or packages, optimized for easy TV access and ready made for our viewing pleasure (and at a competitive cost, one can only hope).
The next decade (oy.) should see all of this shake out, and the results could be fun and interesting for us TV watchers… or it could drive us away from TV watching and into some other regular pastime. I know, sounds pretty much impossible… but stranger things have happened.