Call us cord cutters. Call us whatever you like, it won’t change how few of us are going to pay into cable TV come graduation. And frankly, I don’t blame anyone. According to a report by The NPD Group, an analytics firm, there’s a predicted rise in monthly TV packages from $86 monthly to potentially more than $200 by 2020. This has in turn led to the “a la carte” model, where people pay independent, monthly access fees for each network they want content from. This isn’t a terrible thing, but I fear this is quickly evolving into something equally expensive and unfair for customers everywhere. (Time, “3 Moves to Cut Your Cable Bill Right Now’, 01.06.15)
The whole a la carte model is pretty straightforward. For years, we bought cable televisions and premium content on a package basis. You pick between five or six versions, ranging from the “basic cable” namesake of the older, more established networks. Then you pay a bit more for HBO and the movie channels. Then you have the sports packages, international television packages and so on until you have your total cable TV experience.
Meanwhile, most of us don’t mind at all consuming the vast swaths of free content available on sites such as YouTube, Twitch and other video and streaming services. Even though my SoCo (and many other senior housing facilities) come ready to hook up Time Warner Cable, the $50+ monthly price for any residually decent TV package is a bitter pill to swallow, especially when I can just go on Vassar’s Internet for free.
Historically, this isn’t a strange concept. Ironically, it was the very TV we flee that drew us in on the whole “free” argument 60 years ago. Not only were these services conveniently located in our homes, rather than down at the movie theater or performing arts center, but they also came at a price nobody could beat. We traded it with our time, television ads and other promotional spots.
Then cable came and changed everything. At first it was just HBO, CNN and a few other channels for a monthly fee. Now there’s hundreds of channels, and still so little worth watching for the price they want.
It’s so mind-boggling, that the services you used to get for free as over-the-air television are now also embracing the pay-per-month model. CBS plans to launch a new Star Trek television show on its pay-per-month CBS All Access service in 2017. Hulu, a partnership of several major networks, charges $8 to $12 a month for access to the same content you get for free with a pair of rabbit ears and a DVR. Oh, and by the way, you have to pay for even the most basic cable packages that include network television too. They’ve suckered us in for the last few decades, and now they’re looking to cash in big time.
I can understand why too. People like the “cord cutter” generation (as we’re called by people twice our age) don’t buy cable, so they have to keep prices high to meet the same revenue expectations from a smaller customer pool. As a result, even the most basic cable packages feel ridiculously priced compared to what we can (mostly) get online for free. There’s only a handful of shows worth paying for, and many television networks put these shows on pedestals to try and sell us on their worth.
This is where the true issue emerges. Netflix, and even Hulu, offer tons of content for their $10 to $12 a month each. But the same isn’t true for something like CBS All Access. The sheer amount of content we get often puts these a la carte services to shame.
CBS only has so many shows, and unlike your favorite football team, you don’t stick to a single network when experiencing the content you want. CBS All Access lacks by-the-minute television coverage from its news studios, and instead over-hypes “NCIS” and “Big Bang Theory” to try and encourage people to opt into the service. They instead expect you to pay each network $6 to $8 a month for service. HBO wants $15 a month. Suddenly cable TV isn’t looking so inexpensive anymore.
This in turn discourages these very same companies from cooperating with services like Hulu and Netflix, which offer far more content for the exact same monthly price. They make you wait months before getting any new content. Hulu used to run “next day” programming, but now they require a cable subscription for that, and you may end up wiling a whole week anyway waiting. These networks, meanwhile, wonder why people continue to pirate their content. CBS All Access tries to remedy that, but at the same price as Netflix? You’ve got to be kidding me. They’re holding our shows hostage—the very shows we may as well just watch over the air for free—or acquire through “other” means if we so desire.
Another criticism I have is that a la carte services, at $8 a month, do not cover the delivery method—only the content. This means that no matter what packages you get, you’ll still need decently fast Internet to handle your connection needs, equipment to watch your content on, and all sorts of other piecemeal things to get something relatively close to the total TV experience we used to expect on cable. This is, of course, true for all our streaming and other online services, but when you have to pay an extra $50 a month for all the a la carte services you want, plus $50 a month for Internet, you realize how much of a cash grab it becomes.
I’m glad we have so many options these days, but it’s clear the whole thing is becoming too expensive to maintain, no matter how you slice it. Paying a la carte is supposed to feel freeing, but frankly it encourages piracy just as much as cable television does today. Once the service is more competitively and reasonably priced, I might be willing to sign on. Until then, I doubt CBS All Access and other “network-based” services will ever be worth their salt.