Bring Back Cable TV!

I’ve not been a person to watch of lot of TV since around 2000. As a kid, we didn’t have cable TV or satellite, but had just the initially one and later two aerial channels that existed. When I moved out from my parents’ I had a brief stint with cable, albeit never out of choice: first I had ordered a cable internet subscription, because that was the best bang for the money at the time, and back then they were not able to filter out the TV channels even if you didn’t want to pay for them. Later, I moved to an apartment where I was forced to be member of an antenna union backed by cable for about a year. So, I am clearly the most qualified person to speak my mind about cable TV.

For the longest time, people have complained about the cable TV packages: they contain a ton of channels people don’t care about and they felt they were over-paying. I have always tried to explain that the channels they do want are also subsidized by other people who want the channels you don’t. You may pay for twice the channels you want because you’re subsidizing channels other people want, but at the same time you’re likely only paying half per channel because other people are subsidizing your channels. The only thing splitting up the packages would accomplish would likely mean paying the same just getting fewer channels. If I don’t want to watch football, which I wholeheartedly don’t want to, I’d have to pay twice as much to watch Gossip Girl because, believe it or not, there are actually people out there who don’t care about the lives of B, S, GG and all the other great characters.

Cable TV is in effect the only working example of communism history has presented: everybody pays the same (ignoring the slightly different payments for slightly different packages), and everybody enjoys as much TV and ads as they need. The single student pays the same as the family of 10 pays the same as the retiree that earns less but watches TV all day.

Then Netscapeflix came along and “saved” TV: pay just one subscription and watch everything you want from an a-la-carte menu for ⅙ the price of cable. Except that’s not what happened at all. Netflix was mostly older films with expired rights until it started producing its own rather lackluster shows. I had Netflix for, like, three months or half a year about a decade ago, and felt I’d watched all I would ever want there. The promise of Netflix seemed good until you realize it was largely subsidized by venture capital (and it’s absolutely fair to take advantage of VC funded under-priced deals as long as you don’t allow the companies to become monopolies).

But Netflix became popular, and the other big networks wanted a piece of the pie. So they launched their own streaming services. Like, Hulu, HBO, Disney+, AppleTV+, likely others. Just today, I saw now there’s two more services launching in Europe. One with sports on it and another with I don’t even know or care what. If you want to watch all the shows, you need all the services. Each cost ⅛-¼ of a cable subscription, but if you don’t have like 6 of them, you’re missing some of the big shows. So, you’re back to paying the same as for cable.

It should not come as a surprise we have to pay the same as for cable: cable was priced roughly at the sweet spot where the companies involved earned enough money to produce the amount of TV people wanted to watch. If the amount of TV people want to watch isn’t being reduced, the price cannot really be reduced either because then there isn’t really enough money to produce the TV. Yeah, the companies could just go for less profit, but they’re not gonna, and long-term they’ll just go bankrupt and reduce overall production. The total price reflects the total need for TV production.

I have a subscription to Disney+ because I’m apparently 12 and Glee is just perfect entertainment for spinning workout. I also have AppleTV+ because it comes “for free” with my Apple Music subscription for students, but I rarely use it because the shows are mostly pretentious and boring. I have had Amazon Prime for one month for free and Netflix for a few months in the past. I don’t watch a lot of TV shows and much prefer Youtube. It buy one of Google’s Youtube subscriptions (whatever their current name is) if they didn’t try so hard to force me to. Same goes for the spin-off Nebula or whatever – I’m tired of Youtubers shilling that every other video, so I’ll never get that either. If there were a subscription that provided the same type of content without annoying advertising, I would probably pay for that.

What I’ll never do, however, is pay per show. A lot of Youtubers also have Patreons, where you can support their channel. And now, everybody and their mum is getting extremely specific streaming services. There was a Kickstarter for the godawful Mystery Science Theater show, that wanted to first fund some more episodes, and later a separate streaming service where you could watch their episodes. Just this week, a genuinely amusing show, Taskmaster, announced they’re making a streaming service, likely to replace the ad-supported full episode uploads they have made to Youtube. Paying €1-5 per month for at best 1 episode a week and more likely something like 20 episodes a year is just not going to fly for me and I guess a lot of people, whether that’s via extremely specific streaming services or via Patreons.

Heck, now streaming services are starting to put back ads. Disney+ announced that recently, and just today I watched an episode for Severance on AppleTV+ which started with an ad for some dumb Jon Stewart thing I’ll never watch. Sure, the ads are relatively unobnoxious yet, but mark my words: in a few years, it will be as bad as Youtube without an ad-blocker.

Streaming came in to first compete with, then beat and replace cable. Then they became cable, where you need to pay the same amount just for fewer channels, and now can play things on-demand, meaning that you no longer need that old VHS. Now, they’re becoming worse than cable, where you pay for each individual show. I don’t think anybody really wants that.

Payment per show is bad for content producers: A ton of shows will be living on the poverty line, because the total amount of spending will remain roughly the same. Heck, consumers might even reduce consumption, because when there’s a direct connection between consumption and spending, people enjoy it less and reduce consumption.

Payment per show is also bad for consumers: People will see their choices even further reduced. Squid Game and that monkey show were super popular, and I might have given either a try just to see what the buzz was about, but I’m not going to subscribe to Netflix or whatever to see that. I’m not sufficiently invested in any show to want to purchase it outright: I just need something dumb and musicy 2 hours every other day when I’m cycling indoors. I guess most people just want some pictures and sound as background for their doom-scrolling or to avoid having to talk to their families.

Music streaming works because I pay one flat rate and have access to all the music: consumption and payment are decoupled. I can just download an album (importantly, any album) and listen to it once because I don’t see any marginal cost for it. And I can not listen to an album for a while, because I’m not paying for that particular album, making me feel like I’m losing money by paying for but not listening to it. Cable TV (and OG Netflix) worked because you paid one flat rate at got access to all the TV.

If this trend of continuous worsening of streaming services continues, the next step is straight back to piracy.

Or the streaming services could make some sort of bundle where you got all the streaming content for a fixed monthly fee. They could tie that bundle together with some sort of string or cable and call it “Cable TV.”

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