Cable TV: Winter Is Coming
We’re in an interesting time in the television season: Olympic Time. Like a lot of things that dictate how or when we watch our mass entertainment, the idea that no other show can function or get the ratings it would need in a normal February because all the viewers will be tuned into time-shifted NBC events where they badger the contestants to tears by bringing up their dead siblings. At times like this, Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report double-punch is an oasis of new content, while Netflix realized it’s power position and released the second season of House of Cards.
Also, HBO (“not TV”) rides high in the zeitgeist with True Detective. Though I’m far behind, as I can’t get HBO because I’ve removed myself from the cable-bundling ecosystem.
In this dark month for fans of television narrative storytelling, there’s other goings on with that line of cable that connects your TV to the hundreds of viewing possibilities. At over $45 billion — with a B — in stock, Comcast’s bid to buy out Time Warner cable looks like an expensive merger of massive conglomerates. These two, though, have never done well in the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Those of you who have required a new cable box or maintenance on your line know the pains of the six-hour window; maybe the cable guy is going to show up, maybe he isn’t. Or maybe this is just a corporate version of bundling, the business practice that groups unwanted channels with popular channels so everyone can profit regardless of quality. That’s why about $5 of your monthly cable bill goes to ESPN, even if you don’t get any ESPN-themed packages. Also — if any of you lost CBS recently while Time Warner was in a contract dispute, imagine that happening more often as the Time Warner bargaining side just massively inflated.
The third dark TV omen of late — January’s ruling by a federal court that the FCC can’t regulate net neutrality means sometime in the future these very same companies that are making one giant one will be able to throttle your internet speed for certain parts of the internet or charge other companies money for preferred bandwidth treatment. In other words: those who thought they’d find TV refuge by “cord cutting” are going to meet the misnomer when they need the internet … also provided through the cable companies.
What we’re seeing happen to television looks a lot like what happened to the music industry, content wise: our shows have become more diverse (hey, Amazon has pilots for you now), but our ability to focus on them as a large viewership deteriorates. While there will always be the Beyoncé/Olympics of the respective medium, the cable ratings and late-night genre shows have many places to put down roots and wait for their specific audience to find them (Congratulations, 20-something men, you got Rick and Morty another season). The cool thing about television and the contributing factor to its successful diversification in comparison to the collapse of the traditional music industry is that advertising can’t be as reactive funding a method of delivery as they can funding a specific program. If TV is broadcasting, someone paid for that to happen. That someone was likely and advertiser who is going to broadcast their ads at a certain time, even if no one is tuned into that channel at that specific moment. This didn’t work for music’s model where you were buying the product. Pizza Hut wasn’t going to assume everyone was going to buy the new Papa Roach album and put advertising on the CD (Compact Discs, they were, like, a spinning disc that was like a thumb drive you could only write to once). There are vague reasons why TV shows get low ratings — the show wasn’t good, it was a re-rerun, something horrible happened the week before and goodwill was lost amongst the viewership — but those problems have creative solutions: find a new show, buy reruns everyone likes, constantly broadcast the Harry Potter movies. Those are all solutions that benefit us, the viewer. If Pizza Hut was advertising in Papa Roach albums and no one bought the Papa Roach album, the conclusion is not to advertise by putting all your eggs in one content-delivery basket.
What do all these ramblings have in common?
The time is going to come in the near future where the consumer is going to have a showdown with the way we structure cable broadcasting in this country. The internet has made a la carte delivery of popular shows a distinct possibility with services like iTunes, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus and Netflix. We’re starting to see fictional shows do well outside of the broadcast model to the point where there’s a Hulu-Only Chipotle-sponsored series about to launch. Which is puzzling because that is the un-bundled, Papa Roach/Pizza Hut example.
Shows that are subscription based, not dependant on broadcast advertising, show their power when the mass TV audience is forced to ingest an event like the Olympics. It’s here we glimpse our window of escape from the future of bandwidth-throttling and 30-channel bundles, and even though that window is another grouping of conglomerates (in the case of Hulu, the exact conglomerate I’m suggesting you flee), their advertising models are more focused on the content. It allows Pizza Hut to advertise on a Papa Roach CD, but that means the Papa Roach CD better be the best Papa Roach can make it. It seems like a gamble to those who don’t know if consumers will follow their content. But to us, the viewer, it’s a crack in the bundling wall.
Now someone give me their HBO Go password.
Dave “Da7e” Gonzales works in cable television for MTV Networks. He podcasts weekly at FightingInTheWarRoom.com and does a special Legend of Korra podcast at RepublicCityDispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter.