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  • The Death of TV

    Posted by James R. Rummel on December 16th, 2008 (All posts by )

    I haven’t had much time to watch television over the past few years. My charity work kept me from having any big blocks of hours available, at least during my regular work week.

    The Internet connection I have is through the local cable company, and I had a standard package of channels for my viewing pleasure. A few years ago that meant I’d watch The History Channel and the news channels, with the SciFi Channel on Fridays to see what new happened on Battlestar: Galactica and Stargate.

    My interest in The History Channel has been on the wane for some years now, mainly because they endlessly replay old material. It seems that every time I turned it on, there was something playing that I had already seen. Why bother, then?

    I’ve been blogging for a long time, and it is obvious that most of the major stories are brought to light through blog posts about three days before the big mainstream news outlets get around to telling the public what is going on. I was increasingly bored when watching the news since they were just going over ground that had been examined, endlessly bloviated about, and dismissed as past events by the blogs long before the major networks were even aware of what was going on. Why bother watching the news, then?

    I started to skip The SciFi Channel on Fridays when the original Stargate series wrapped up. The final nail in that coffin was when I realized I could catch Battlestar: Galactica on Hulu.com at my leisure. Why bother with any broadcast channels at all, then?

    Yesterday I finally bowed to the inevitable and canceled my cable service. I kept the Internet connection, obviously.

    This seems obvious in hindsight, but I still hung on to my subscription for close to a year even when I noticed that I never bothered to use it. This was mainly due to a hope that I’d come across something entertaining to watch late at night on my day off, a hope that has been frustrated for the past ten months or so. Thank goodness for all night video rental stores, huh?

    The only other reason I clung to this dinosaur of media delivery was, because of the bundling scheme for services that my cable company uses, I would only save a few bucks a month if I got rid of the cable TV feed. It became obvious that even that pittance was wasted money when I noticed that I had only watched about 15 total minutes of cable TV the last month. On the few days that I wasn’t busy and didn’t feel like reading, I’d flip through the channels to see if there was anything interesting, and then go turn on the computer.

    Does anyone else out there remember when cable TV was the wave of the future? Most cities had three broadcast channels, and that was it. The first cable services would usually bring in an independent channel station or two from larger cities, TBS, CNN, and MTV. If you were lucky you got ten extra channels coming through the wire, which seemed to be pretty amazing at the time.

    The world turns, though. Now I am dissatisfied with close to 100 channels, all because they don’t provide the content I want when I want to watch. Instead of cable, I now look to free video-on-demand to entertain me for the four hours or so a week where I actually want to watch television.

    Seems to be a step in the right direction.

    (This was cross posted over at Hell in a Handbasket.)

     

    37 Responses to “The Death of TV”

    1. Jay Manifold Says:

      It’ll be interesting to see what happens to cable/satellite channels in the next few years. I cancelled my subscription (along with my DSL) this past spring after noticing that
      I was using it only a few hours a month;
      I derived far more enjoyment from the audio channels than the video;
      there was no obvious way to get audio-only;
      my air card was as fast as my DSL and allowed me to work from anywhere reasonably near a cell tower, including the neighborhood bar if I wanted to be that obnoxious;
      the dubious privilege of my satellite/DSL package was costing me $900/year.
      If a lot more people make similar decisions, I would expect satellite, and perhaps digital, radio to do well, while cable/satellite TV begins going the way of newspapers and broadcast TV. As James notes, video-on-demand will have an effect as well.

    2. Dan from Madison Says:

      Right now I pay $1500/year for my cable/internet package. I am very pleased with the internet portion as there are very few disruptions. I have way too many TV channels that I don’t watch, but pay the premium because I am a football/baseball/fights junkie. I very much wish that the channels could come “a la carte”.

      I don’t see how the internet will be able to overcome this niche (live sports) in the near future. The NFL has started to stream some of its games, but it is way too blocky/grainy to make it worth it. Plus I need to spread out and relax while watching a game or fight on a big screen, not on a tiny laptop.

    3. David Foster Says:

      There are a lot of talented people with ideas for TV programs, but no way to get them produced & distributed. And there are a lot of people who are unimpressed with present TV content and would be potential audiences for the above. There has to be some way to bring them together.

    4. James R. Rummel Says:

      “I don’t see how the internet will be able to overcome this niche (live sports) in the near future.”

      I think that content will keep the cable TV companies going for a long time. They might have problems attracting and retaining people like myself that are not sports fans, but there really isn’t anywhere else someone who likes to watch sporting events can go.

      I very much wish that the channels could come “a la carte”.

      The cable TV providers try their best to sweep up as many subscribers as possible, so they include content that is marginal at best. That is why there were over 100 channels in my subscription package, but I only ever watched three or four.

      The marginal channels might get a pittance from the cable TV companies, but have to rely on advertising to survive. There might not be all that many people in a single area that wants to watch what they offer, but they can reach a whole lot of households as long as they are included in the basic cable subscription package.

      That is why the business strategy for cable TV was to provide as many channels as possible, even if the majority of it was stuff that only a few die-hards bothered to watch. I suspect that a sizable fraction of cable subscribers are people who made the decision to sign up because they could only get one or two channels that appealed to their specialized hobbies through cable.

      If the media companies allowed people to pick and choose, then those marginal channels would not be able to find enough subscribers to attract advertising dollars, and they would fold. The cable TV companies would lose a sizable fraction of their business as the number of channels they offered shrank. The only channels that would survive would be the major channels that either already have a lock on most ad dollars, the ones backed by the media giants that could absorb the loss in ad revenue, or the channels that are essentially nothing more than one long commercial.

      What would cable TV look like if people could only order the channels they want? Besides the 4 major networks (Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC), there would be the news channels, sports, Disney, MTV, and The Home Shopping Network.

      Pretty bleak. I doubt that the cable TV providers could still turn a profit if that was all they had to offer at current costs, so they would have to increase their prices. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if people ended up paying more per month under a pick-and-choose scheme than they do now with lots of channels they never watch.

      James

    5. sol vason Says:

      I strongly oppose any bailout no matter what they call it

    6. david foster Says:

      There’s a lot going on with Internet video, such as the Snag Films venture from Ted Leonsis and the download box from Netflix (which is intended to connect to a TV, not to a computer). Probably what’s going to happen is that much of the new creative content will be distributed via vehicles such as these…the cable operators will still be there as bandwidth providers, of course, and will still have a role for things like real-time sports, plus the diminishing legacy audience of people who care about the nightly news.

    7. Shannon Love Says:

      Does anyone else out there remember when cable TV was the wave of the future? Most cities had three broadcast channels, and that was it.

      Until I was 14, we lived way out in the country and got only one and half channels (one came in clear most of the time and second some of the time). I didn’t see anything that ran on CBS during the 70’s. When we moved to the edge of town we got 6 channels! My grandfather groused that no one should watch that much TV anyway. Two years later we moved back out to the country. I didn’t really miss it.

      I think that the future of TV lays in something like Apple’s iTunes. TV will be on demand and you will pay for the good stuff. Advertising will go away as people just skip over the adds. I think this will lead to higher quality TV overall as shows with small audiences can survive just by charging a little bit more.

      I personally am looking forward to it. Our family seems to have odd taste in that about 75% of the shows we like don’t seem to survive more than a year. (Firefly, for example). I would gladly pay for good TV. If I’m going to spend time watching it, I would like to have that time well spent.

    8. Trent Telenko Says:

      The only live TV shows I have watched in the last few years has been DANCING WITH THE STARS, Terminator:The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and NFL football.

      I have not had a cable TV subscription for 15 years.

      I watch most movies I see via my wife’s netflix subscription.

      The way I see it, is you are not really instantly craving “video on demand” over the internet, Netflix pretty much has thet nich sowed up.

    9. Mrs. Davis Says:

      I skipped cable. Could never see the point of paying for something I could get for free. But then I never drank bottled water either. Or owned an 8 track. Some technology generations can be skipped with no discernable effect on quality of life. Netflix serves me well and we have the widest pipe in the neighborhood. I can wait two days to see something worth watching. I can spend the time surfing the net, finding out what is really happening.

    10. david foster Says:

      Has anybody here yet gotten the NetFlix video-on-demand box? I’m curious both because I’m thinking about getting one, and also because I occasionally consider NFLX as an investment.

    11. cjm Says:

      netflix has had a box-solution for awhile. but what is really interesting is their recent collaboration with msft, allowing xbox360 owners to stream vod to their tv’s. the quality is better than satellite, and it’s included with your standard netflix subscription.

      the reason cable and satellite companies won’t let you pay for channels ala carte, is because they want to force people to pay $50+ a month. if you only paid for the channels you wanted, your bill would be much less than that. it’s like restaurants with really big portions to justify higher prices.

    12. Jonathan Says:

      Cjm:
      the reason cable and satellite companies won’t let you pay for channels ala carte, is because they want to force people to pay $50+ a month. if you only paid for the channels you wanted, your bill would be much less than that. it’s like restaurants with really big portions to justify higher prices.

      In my area I can’t get cable Internet service without buying a cable TV package that I don’t want. Fortunately I made sure that adequate DSL service was available before I moved here.

    13. bustoff Says:

      When once asked what he watched on TV at home, Walter Payton replied “ESPN, and whatever my wife is watching”.
      In my house, I have abandoned the former and abide by the latter. There is nothing I want to see that I can’t get faster and more comprehensively on the Internet. Cable TV is for people that are sitting in jail.

    14. Obloodyhell Says:

      > And there are a lot of people who are unimpressed with present TV content and would be potential audiences for the above. There has to be some way to bring them together.

      There is. In its initial stages, it’s called “YouTube”.

      What it’ll morph into in 10 years is another question.

      That partly depends on what happens in the War between the RIAA/MPAA and P2P. Given the nature of the internet, I fully expect P2P to win in the end, and for someone to figure out what John Perry Barlow pointed out over a decade ago: You can’t control digital content. Whatever system is developed for rewarding IP creators, it’s not going to be centered on the notion of controlling it. Reward needs to be implicit upon release, and tied in some way to interest and appreciation by society — perhaps some metric based on search engine hits.

      The real fact of the matter is that we already drag on the amount of IP creation which might be produced, with all the existing misuse of copyright and trademark. When Disney passed the Bono bill, primarily to protect their ownership of Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto (regardless of the obvious fact that this, as an ex-post facto bill of attainder, is an illegal and unconstitutional law), they caused damage to society by limiting the ability of all to develop their own content based on what had become widespread memes.

      As it is, if someone comes up with a bright idea for a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and makes an animation of it to show off their skills, Disney’s attorneys will fall on them like two tons of lead. How does this benefit society? A: None at all. It only benefits the Disney Corporation.

      Yeah, that means that a lot of crap will get produced — including “Mickey Mouse porn”. But it wouldn’t hurt Disney, because Disney would still be able to use the term “Official” to designate stuff which had recieved its imprimature (and likely a good chunk of the rewards from), and that will still be worth something as long as Disney selects wisely and well.

      And there’s not really a downside to this — Disney doesn’t have to lay out a dime to take advantage of the creator’s talents. If their idea doesn’t work, or doesn’t work well enough, then Disney could ignore it.

      Society benefits because no longer would ideas be funnelled through the bottleneck of a small cadre of individuals granting their imprimature — instead all creations are evaluated by the market for viability and desirability.

      “Control” over IP is anathema to an IP and Services Economy. Wealth comes from the free flow of information into the hands of those who desire to use it.

    15. Whitehall Says:

      Very seldom watch anything on TV. My entertainment comes from on-air FM radio but then I have some very good non-profit stations here in the SF Bay Area.

      BTW, FM sounds best when it is all analog. There is no better sound quality than a live FM broadcast, well engineered.

    16. chuck Says:

      I dropped my cable option several years ago except for the free channels and the last time I turned on the TV was to check if the cable connection was down. The new, big screen TV’s make me lust to spend money until I get serious and note that I watch neither TV nor movies. I’ve only missed the cartoon and history channels and I suspect I’d miss them less if I could see what they are showing now.

    17. sol vason Says:

      The amount of new programming is not enough to fill the schedule 12 months from Jan to Dec; it is not enough to fill just 9 months from September through May; nor is it enough to fill six months from September thru March, taking December 15 to Jan 15 off; It seems there is only enough money to fund new programming for the two months ending with the Nielsen fall sweeps and the two months nding with the Nielsen spring sweeps. And even the sweeps data has lost its importance because set boxes give live year round measurement. The unions have a very hard time. Higher wages cause less programming. But actors don’t need a union to get lower wages. In the future more programming will have subtitles or will be dubbed – eg Japanese game shows.

    18. Robert Talbert Says:

      I’ve been working on my wife for six weeks now to convince her that dropping our cable subscription is worth it. But she is addicted to HGTV and will be damned if some budget-conscious geek will deny her the right to watch the same episodes of “House Hunters”, which you cannot yet get on demand via iTunes, over and over and over again. But I’m not bitter about that!

      My argument has been: (1) I don’t really watch TV except for the local broadcast channels; (2) our two kids (ages 3 and 5) only watch kid shows, they don’t care if they are repeats, and you can get them cheap or free online, and the money we’d save each month from not having cable could be used to purchase 5-10 new shows each month for them to watch; and (3) the only thing the Mrs. watched is HGTV shows, and honestly, is it worth that much a month to watch the umpteenth episode featuring the young couple with no kids who love to entertain, looking for a 3000 ft^2 house in the suburbs that’s beyond their means?

      Wish me luck.

    19. Deirdre Says:

      I also love the new Netflix box. It’s free with my normal subscription.

      Only… I don’t have an XBOX 360. I have a Playstation 3 and still manage to stream it. It’s probably not as refined as the 360’s solution, since I’m just using what I use to stream all my other videos, but the PS3 has that Blu Ray drive, which is awesome for watching films.

      Sony has a video download service too (shows and movies), but I have netflix so I haven’t bothered to check it out. Clearly, though, this stuff is taking off. How long before Playstation Home has live NFL game parties with live broadcast coverage (or simulated attendance at the stadium!).

      Once live sports can be conveyed well over the internet, and fast internet becomes universal and cheap, I expect to see network television and cable TV have some serious problems.

    20. Shawn Says:

      We got rid of our cable package several years ago for similar reasons. I’ve been tempted to go back, every August just as NCAA football season starts. I’ve been able to resist so far. However, one of the satellite providers has recently introduced a “HD Only” package for about $25/mo that has about two dozen HD channels. They’re the only ones I’m interested in watching anyway. I haven’t fallen off the wagon yet (college football is winding down now), but if I do, that package will be the only reason why. Give me two or three other channels a la carte for, say $5/mo extra, and it could be a done deal.

    21. punditius Says:

      It seems to me that cable is part of a video appliance, in the same category as a microwave or a table top radio, that delivers certain limited services that you want, but delivers them well. The video appliance consists of the cable service, a dvr (ours is Tivo) and an appropriate monitor (ours is a largish HD.) Options are some kind of surround sound setup, and a dvd player.

      The thing about this video appliance is that it is simple to use. There’s a little bit of setup, but once you have the microwave set for the popcorn, or the radio set to the channels you listen to, that’s the end of that.

      I do not see how internet based video has reached the appliance stage. Maybe I just don’t know enough about it, but it seems to me that it involves a greater degree of interaction with the machinery involved.

      Let me compare the video situation to the audio situation for my wife and me.

      I have a mac, itunes, emusic, and routinely locate & download things like Theme Time Radio Hour. I download cds into itunes. I also record radio broadcasts off the air or from streaming sources, using RadioShark or AudioHijack. I have an Airport Express hooked up to the stereo, and can sit in my easy chair and play, through the stereo, anything on my computer. If I’m surfing the net, & find an audio file, I can use Airfoil to direct the audio through my stereo.

      My wife turns on the radio or plays cds.

      Now, as you can see, I have a much more complicated audio life than my wife does. I put much more effort into my audio life than my wife does into hers.

      But the point is that my wife could not use my audio approach to achieve her audio objectives. It’s just too complicated for what she wants to do, and requires too much interaction with the computer and the internet.

      I think it’s the same thing with video. For a person greatly involved with video, internet based video services are worth the time & attention required. But for those of use with limited video needs, we just want to turn on the tv or play dvds.

    22. Erik Says:

      The whole idea of “networks” and “channels” is obsolete. Not only do we watch just a few channels, but on those few channels we watch only a few shows. Right now, I can watch brand new shows on Netflix over my Xbox the day after they air. I hardly ever watch shows when they are first aired anyway (I hate watching commercials). The obvious solution is the one that Netflix provides either through the Xbox or through its own set-top box. Deliver shows directly and bypass the networks altogether.

      The idea of networks and channels is based on the reality of TV in the 20th century. Local channels to provide national coverage. The technology has changed, though, and TV should not be tied to the legacy of TV’s early history.

    23. dagwud Says:

      We’re in the process of dropping cable. We’ve found that, more often than not, we’re flipping channels while saying, “Dang. There’s nothing on.”

      When we moved in, DSL wasn’t available in our neighborhood and high-speed internet was a must. So we got the package deal with phone, internet, and cable for $90. At the end of the first year, they bumped it up to $130. Then they told us that voice mail is no longer an included option. So, now, it’s close to $140 a month.

      With video on the internet (hulu, netflix, etc.), the shows we do watch are available without cable – or even without an antenna. Highest tier DSL and all-inclusive phone service (all our relatives are long distance calls) will run us about $75 a month. That’s $65 in savings.

      The only real loss is the convenience of the DVR. But our disused VCR will work for OTA broadcasts until I build that HTPC I keep talking about.

    24. in PA Says:

      Does anyone else out there remember when cable TV was the wave of the future? …Now I am dissatisfied with close to 100 channels, all because they don’t provide the content I want when I want to watch.

      The Golden Age of cable TV had to be from the mid-’80s to about 1990. In a lineup of just 60 or so channels: A&E actually showed arts-related programming, documentaries and arthouse type films; MTV, VH1 and The Nashville Network played music; The History Channel ran World War II documentaries and other historical type footage found in the public domain; the USA Network (as part of its “Nighflight” show) played cult movies, rock concerts and new wave/punk/American roots rock videos not usually seen on MTV; the Comedy Channel ran clips of stand-up comedians’ acts; and American Movie Classics showed crackly old black-&-white movies. At any time of the day, you could find a movie and any number of old TV reruns to watch.
      Now, after 1 a.m., it’s infomericals, lame reality TV shows, the history of UFO sightings, the paranormal and fast food, more informercials, and, of course, “Law & Order.” Always “Law & Order.”
      Sure, I could probably get much more content (old movies and the like), but I would have to pay a lot more. No thanks.

    25. Shawn Levasseur Says:

      “I don’t see how the internet will be able to overcome this niche (live sports) in the near future. The NFL has started to stream some of its games, but it is way too blocky/grainy to make it worth it.”

      I thought that was only for people outside of North America. (Presumably to preserve DirecTV’s monopoly on NFL PPV)

    26. The Cat Herder Says:

      We cancelled our satellite TV subscription a little over a year ago and went back to over-the-air. We still get “come back” letters from DirecTV every week, and the offers are getting better with free DVR’s and HD as time passes, but I can’t see *spending money* to watch lousy programming again. If there’s something I simply have to watch off of a subscription channel, there are plenty of on-line methods (some legal, some not-quite-so-legal) that can let me what what I want, when I want to.

    27. Shawn Levasseur Says:

      “Does anyone else out there remember when cable TV was the wave of the future? Most cities had three broadcast channels, and that was it.”

      Remember all the promises that were made to us by cable companies and the politicians who oversaw them? No commercials! Tons of varied original content!

      Eventually, all the promises were broken. We need to buy a Tivo to avoid the onslaught of ads on every show. Cable is now dominated by infomercials and foreign language stations– because it increases their profit margin. TV drama is still dominated by a few Hollywood insiders. As for original content, I just found this cool new show – Twilight Zone by Rod Serling!

    28. Robert Says:

      You know you can often get the cable company to reduce your rate simply by calling and threating to cancel your service. You can look on consumerist . com for hints on how to do this.

      If it wasn’t for UNC basketball, I’d drop cable like a hot potato.

    29. Laurence Says:

      I dumped cable in 2003. I have not missed it at all. I take some small pleasure in not giving money to Time-Warner.

      It takes a little research but the better shows are soon available on DVD. And you save 15 minutes a hour watching them without commercials.

    30. Isegoria Says:

      My sense of “100 channels and nothing on” was turned on its head the moment we got a DVR. When you can record whole seasons of your favorite shows and search the entire next week’s schedule, the way you search the Web, and just come home to a list of shows you know you’ll like, it completely changes the experience of watching TV. And then you skip all the commercials.

      Everything everyone said about TiVo was true: no one who had it would give it up, but no one who hadn’t already tried it could see the point.

    31. Isegoria Says:

      The cable companies bundle channels you don’t want in with channels you do want for the same reason that any marketer bundles any cluster of products.

      They’re offering products with high fixed costs but low variable costs — it costs a lot to make a show, but it costs next to nothing to let one more person watch a show — so they offer the bundle as a way to get a high price for whatever channel you do like and a low, but non-zero, price for whatever other channels you might watch once in a while. This makes particularly good sense when not everyone agrees on which channels are the must-haves and which are the nice-to-haves.

    32. John Says:

      Gimme a break. For $50, you get a month’s worth of 24/7 entertainment programming x 100 channels. We’re so goddamned spoiled we have no idea how good we have it. It’s nothing short of a minor freaking miracle brought to you courtesy of free enterprise.

      Sure, you might only watch a handful of channels but unless you are single or have no kids, it’s the best entertainment value around. The only reason you don’t watch 90% of the channels is because the 10% you *do* watch give you everything you need. If that 10% disappeared, you would happily watch a different 10%.

      I have my 5 or 6 channels, my wife has hers and my kids have theirs — and they are all pretty much mutually exclusive. It is simply the best deal in town.

    33. Jonathan Says:

      TV is a huge sink of time that could otherwise be used for reading, working, sleeping, creating things and other activities. To each his own but there are things I’d rather do with my time than watch TV.

    34. Anonymous Says:

      I gave up owning a TV in 1993. I don’t think I’ve missed much. I used to watch movies on my VCR, but that’s history, now. I enjoy films on HULU and TCM.
      I think I’m the better for it.
      I gave up newspapers three years ago.
      Pry my Internet out of…etc.

    35. James R. Rummel Says:

      “Sure, you might only watch a handful of channels but unless you are single or have no kids, it’s the best entertainment value around. The only reason you don’t watch 90% of the channels is because the 10% you *do* watch give you everything you need. If that 10% disappeared, you would happily watch a different 10%.”

      Keep in mind that I dumped my cable service because the 10% I was watching lost my interest, and I couldn’t find anything from my vast selection of cable delivered content to replace them.

      James

    36. Peg C. Says:

      If it weren’t for my husband I would never turn on the TV except maybe to pop LOTR in. We have shows we like but I’d always rather read and listen to music. We have DirecTV with DVR and watching TV live now is a bizarre experience. I agree with those who want to watch what they recorded at their own convenience and without commercials. (I almost don’t know what a commercial is anymore.) The cost for this garbage is horrendous.

      TV definitely dulls the brain, and we now have 100s of channels with nothing but junk on. It is not worth it. I just can’t figure out why none of the men I know like to read. It is so much more rewarding.

    37. Isegoria Says:

      TV definitely dulls the brain, and we now have 100s of channels with nothing but junk on.

      That’s simply not true. Yes, 90 percent of television may be brain-dulling crud, but 90 percent of everything is crud.

      The trick is to harness technology to let you watch the amazing 10 percent that is worth your time.

      If you simply turn on the TV and hope to stumble across something rewarding, you’ll be disappointed. If you seek out quality, and let the DVR do the leg work, you won’t be disappointed.