So the logic seemed impeccable. Cable TV companies were grabbing more and more of your hard-earned money each year — and I’m referring mainly to U.S. services here — and you had to wonder why you wasted so much to get 300 channels and found little or nothing to watch. Surely there’d be a way to pick and choose in such a way that you’re not paying for content you don’t want.
Alas, bundling has not been an option..
Before I get to the troubles with the most common solution, it’s fitting to remember how it all began.
Now I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and I could watch the local stations with an antenna. But it wasn’t always the best solution. While you had the ability to set up a roof antenna in a private home, with apartment living you were stuck with something less sensitive. So I remember moving a rabbit ears antenna this way and that when switching channels in order to get decent reception.
I didn’t live very far from the source of most of the transmissions, in those days generally the Empire State Building, but the presence of lots of tall buildings made it difficult to get a pristine signal. Indeed, I never succeeded so I had to cope with snow and ghost images most of the time.
How things have changed!
Now when I moved to a small town when I first got into broadcasting, I lived too far from the transmission towers of the major TV stations, so it was time for cable. Or CATV (community antenna television), which used a central reception system to pick up the signals from distant cities. They were then transmitted via a network of cables to homes and businesses.
In the early days of cable TV, reception wasn’t always so great. There was no digital TV, and that best we received was mediocre. There were still ghosts and snow, only the symptoms weren’t as severe. At least we had something to watch.
After a while, the FCC mandated that cable networks provide original programming. This public access system essentially let you buy time on the local cable network — or make a free deal — to provide your own programming. While working at a radio station in the Philadelphia suburbs, management set up a schedule for locally originated programming. At the urging of my bosses, I worked a deal with the local newspapers to present a weekly 30-minute press conference featuring local notables, such as politicians.
And then there was my ongoing interest in the world of the strange and unknown, so in the mid-1970s, I was asked by Harry Belil, publisher of Beyond Reality magazine, to host a weekly interview show covering a range of paranormal subjects. The show lasted a few months before it was discontinued after I moved on to more lucrative opportunities.
In the 1980s, such cable-only channels as USA Network presented collections of reruns. Over the years, the growing roster of such channels began to deliver more and more original programming. It has reached a point where, for most people, there really was no difference, although strictly cable content might be a tad more explicit since they weren’t tied to the FCC’s rules of the road.
That takes us to Netflix, founded in 1997 as a DVD rental service. By 2007, it began to stream programs, reruns at first, that it licensed from the major TV networks. So for the monthly fee, you would get commercial-free fare.
Over the next few years, more and more people, disenchanted with regular prices increases in cable TV packages, offering huge bundles without the ability to stick with the channels you wanted except for premium fare, began to consider streaming options, such as Netflix. By 2013, Netflix entered the content creation business with its first original program, House of Cards, a political drama. The combination of original fare plus network reruns was sufficient to convince many people to give up on cable and stream.
And the streaming content could be real good, as producers, given creative freedom, produced a number of highly-regarded and award-winning shows.
The other day, I had a look at the streaming offerings and was astounded as the sheer number of services that have arisen in recent years. In addition to Netflix, there’s Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Discovery+, Disney+, Epix, HBO Max, Hulu, Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access), Peacock, Showtime and Starz, to name a few, plus such international offerings as Acorn, which features programming from Canada, the UK, Australia and loads of others.
The pandemic encouraged some of these services even offer original movies originally intended for theatrical audiences. HBO Max, for example, offered Wonder Woman 1984 both on-demand and via movie theaters. They also delivered a special “Snyder Cut” version of Justice League, an expanded version of a super hero film that delivered middling box office in its original offering.
Some streamers have multiple-tier pricing, where you pay $5 or $6 per month for content with limited commercials, and $10 or more for ad-free. Each of these networks has its own slate of original programming, and if you thought that cable TV could be costly, imagine a bunch of streaming services to flesh out your choices for entertainment and information.
A few of the services, such as AT&T, Sling TV (Dish Network), Hulu, YouTube and others, even offer slim packages of a few dozen channels to compete with regular cable and satellite.
Now if you are judicious about which services to select, you can probably save some money. If you are close enough to your local TV stations to receive acceptable reception via an antenna, you can really get an affordable variety for your set and, indeed, other devices including smartphones, tablets and personal computers.
And if you’re overwhelmed with content and the cost, you can always cancel or suspend a service for a while to save money, or at times when the offerings aren’t so compelling. Streamers will often offer special prices or a few week or month to entice you to stick around. I recently signed up with Disney+, at $1.99 for the first month, in order to be able to watch the three-part documentary miniseries from director Peter Jackson: The Beatles: Get Back. But I’ll probably cancel before the second month billing.
So it’s all well and good.
Except for one irritating little fact that most of the media reports seem to ignore whenever they publish articles about streaming TV. And that’s bandwidth.
Depending on your ISP, you may be limited in the amount of content you can stream before you hit the limits, So with Cox, even those with its speediest Gigablast service (offering 940 megabits), you are limited to a 1280 GB of data. Some services provide even less. That may seem a lot, but if you are watching 4K content for several hours a day, it’s going to add up surprisingly fast. And if you hit the limits, your services may be throttled to an unacceptably slow speed or suspended.
To continue to watch your favorite shows, you may end up paying extra for more bandwidth. So Cox offers extra for $50 per month.
So what you save on content, you may end up paying for in other ways.
And even if you resolve the bandwidth dilemma, there are always the monthly bills from all those streaming services you ordered up because of exclusive content — and to cut the cord. Indeed, cable companies are getting into the act by adding some streaming services to their roster, such as Netflix, HBO Max (which is often included with the basic HBO premium service) and even Acorn. What this means is that, if you combine the services, there is no bandwidth cap to fret about. At least for the limited number of services you can add.
If you can’t beat ’em.
I do appreciate all the extra choices you have nowadays. It is a wonderful time for quality scripted drama and fewer reasons to go to the movies even if you live in an area where the pandemic isn’t out of control.
But cutting the cord has become a whole lot more complicated in the third decade of the 21st century.
THE FINAL WORD
Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.
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