Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How Is Anyone Still Paying For Cable?

I was on vacation last month, and spent a couple of evenings with nothing much to do except channel surf. So I watched a couple of recent movies I had skipped, and marvelled at how annoying it had become to watch live television. The commercials had never felt more numerous or intrusive. The programming had never seemed more inane. My hotel provided at least two dozen cable channels, but there never seemed to be much on, even in the prime time hours. After months of almost exclusively watching online streaming content and a la carte episodes with very few ad breaks (if any), I felt positively spoiled. And I had to wonder, how was anyone still paying for cable television?

Well, a recent Deloitte survey suggests that most pay TV subscribers are staying because the service comes bundled with their internet service. While there are still millions of US households with pay TV service, most are keeping it because of the hassle of cord cutting. Caps on data usage in many places can make streaming expensive. There still aren't good replacements for sports or live TV streaming, though multiple services have tried to break through in recent years. Live events still present a challenge. When it comes to the actual experience of watching cable, the on-demand streaming services are far more popular and user-friendly. And the new streaming services are popping up like daisies. 27 premiered in 2016 alone, including Filmstruck.

The cable providers seem to have accepted that streaming services are here to stay, but continue to try and stem cord cutting any way that they can, because they make much more from traditional cable services. Still, since HBO Now premiered, there aren't many popular cable shows that aren't online in some form or another. This means that the content wars are getting more heated than ever. A big sign of the times is that many of the smaller cable channels serving niche interests are starting to be trimmed. The Documentary Channel, History International, Trio, and MundoMax all recently got the axe, and more casualties are expected soon. The age of the traditional cable bundle is ending, being replaced by cheaper "skinny" bundles of the most popular channels, and the increasing likelihood of real a la carte options.

Still, we have a long way to go before we truly see cord cutting en masse. As many news articles keep proclaiming the demise of cable television, just as many caution that things aren't moving as fast as people think. Last year's drop in cable subscribers was the biggest yet - but still less than 2%. There is always going to be terrestrial, over-the-air television in some form. Cable too, even if it will probably end up looking very different in the future. And streaming services might end up being just as expensive as a cable subscription in the long run if you subscribe to multiple services at once. It might only be $10 for Netflix, but paying for Netflix, Hulu, Prime, Filmstruck, HBO Now, and however many other services monthly, plus the cost of broadband, adds up quickly.

I'd argue, however, that the online experience is so much better, there's really no comparison. Sure, there's not as much easy access to content on streaming, but I've never had any trouble finding something to watch. In fact, as I've recently complained, I have too much to watch. Much, much too much to entertain the idea of paying for a service that still plays twenty minutes of ads every hour. Even with the legally mandated volume control these days, that's too much to ask.

One of the things that struck me while watching cable this time around was how much effort they put into selling themselves. A good chunk of those commercials were for upcoming movies and shows on the channel we were watching, lovingly edited and packaged to generate the viewer's interest. All the while, these ads were interrupting the movie that I was trying to watch at that moment, which only underlined how poor the viewing experience was.

I don't deny that it's still fun to be able to channel surf, but I'm fine with only doing it on vacations. It was actually a relief to get home to Netflix and Prime and Youtube, where my programming choices were entirely in my own hands.


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