If you’re like most warm-blooded Americans, you hate your cable provider. It sucks your money, the quality of its product offerings is poor, and its customer service department is basically an endless maze that encourages you to give up at every turn.
By comparison, your boy Frank Underwood, your girl Piper Chapman, and Netflix seem like saints. Streaming video is on an explosive rise, and the various tech players that have tried their hand at disrupting the TV industry are making themselves heard. The story around TV the past year or two as a result has been about whether we’re seeing the beginning of the end for cable providers and “traditional” television, but how close are we really?
The numbers are there for the first time – in 2013, the pay-TV industry lost 251,000 subscribers. That’s not a lot, but it’s the first full year of decline, so you have to wonder if it really is the beginning of the end. If we’re going to keep on this narrative positioning cable providers as the enemy—which I’d love to do—there’s bad news. Put simply, these guys are a lot like Tywin Lannister: every move they make is a power move.
By that I mean just like Tywin positions every member (well, pawn) of his extended family so that the Lannisters maintain control of the seven kingdoms, cable providers and content producers make it so that the “good guy” tech companies like Netflix and Hulu can’t get access to new content until after it has already aired on TV. Basically, in an industry where consumers want to consume content immediately, cable does everything in its power to be the first place for that.
Still, if you have Netflix and Hulu, you’ve already taken a huge chunk out of what cable has to offer, and both are less than $10/month. Tack on the HBO Go and Showtime Anytime access you mooch of your friend and you’re even further. Whenever those premium networks start offering their services as standalone products, you’ll be able to watch just about every great show on TV for much less than the total cost of your cable package. Financially, it makes a lot of sense not to have cable, and smart TVs with these apps built in are more prevalent in living rooms than ever. Why do you need a cable box?
The answer always comes back to content. Netflix, Hulu, and the others are doing a fine job starting to disrupt the industry, but they’re miles away from making a dent into live events like sports, awards shows, and presidential debates. Purchasing the rights to those is just too expensive, and cable providers are going clutch onto those as long as they possibly can.
The real trend to look out for when it comes to a tipping point is original content. Netflix scored BIGTIME when it landed House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and even the underwhelming Arrested Development resurrection. Hulu and Amazon Instant Video are behind in that department, but also making a strong push with original series of their own. This is absolutely huge when it comes to disrupting the TV industry, not only from a distribution standpoint, but also when it comes to production. Hollywood’s pilot season is incredibly inefficient, and networks often place a stranglehold on creative energy in the interest of getting better ratings. If video-streaming companies can keep enticing creatives into their arms, and do so in significant numbers, content producers and cable providers will become more and more weak.
For us, the consumers, we can only win from this trend. Whether you’re a casual TV viewer or a self-proclaimed binge-watcher, having access to a show whenever you want it, on pretty much any device you own with a screen, is amazing. TV is still an event, and very much a communal experience, but we’re way past carving out 7pm on a Monday night to watch I Love Lucy. There are so many good shows out there, and our lives are so much less patterned, that having access at any time is the only real option.
The DVR was a step in the right direction, but it’s really just a band-aid. Technology is picking the TV industry’s current stronghold apart one piece at a time. Cable isn’t quite obsolete, and it might never be that way entirely—when there’s this much money and power involved, it becomes an all-out war. Still, at least we’re on the right track, even if we don’t know exactly where the end lies.
So just wait until it’s 2054 and we’re looking back at Kevin Spacey as a savior of entertainment. Could be real.