How to win the cable wars
The Time Warner threat to leave fans without their Jack Bauer and "American Idol" sent chills down some spines, but the power of the Fox brand was too strong and the cable company caved. It turned out that Time Warner needed Fox more than Fox needed Time Warner.
Then, without warning on New Year's Day, Cablevision cut off Food Network and HGTV. A collective cry was heard around the New York metropolitan area when foodies and DIY-ers settled into their sofas, clicked on the remote and ... nothing.
To me, however, the topper was reading articles in the legacy media -- including Newsweek, the Associated Press (though posted on Yahoo!) and The New York Times -- about how you, the consumer, are the losers in the Cable Wars of the Early 21st Century.
Once again, the forest is mistaken for just a bunch of trees. Funny that trees are what the legacy media used to kill to make newsprint. Which is a remnant of a dying media model. Much like the "old" model of cable and broadcast television is dying.
Last month, my family and I took the plunge. We canceled our cable service. We didn't sign up for FiOS. Didn't get a dish.
We bought a digital converter box ($60), a quality set of rabbit ears ($45 -- yes, they still work on digital signals) and signed up for Boxee (free) and Netflix ($16+ a month). We might spring for an $80 box that allows us to stream content via Boxee straight to our TV, without going through my laptop. And when we finally spring for a Blu-ray player, we're going to get one that plays streaming Netflix content.
And don't think we're some sort of "We don't watch TV" people. My husband and I are children of the '80s. If anything, we watch too much TV. I live-blog 24 with friends and have my own personal TV blog where I expound on my theories about Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Fringe or whatever else tickles my fancy.
With the rabbit ears, we get CBS, Fox, a New Jersey PBS station and a few other channels, clear as a bell. NBC comes in most of the time, but sometimes pixillates at night. Considering how little worth watching there is on NBC anymore, that's not such a big issue. The main problem: ABC, The CW and the main PBS station broadcast from the same tower on top of the Empire State Building yet somehow don't come through in our area, though we're a short train ride to midtown.
Then there's Boxee. Basically, it's an application you can sign up for that enables you to watch a lot of what's streamed online. I always encounter buffering issues on Vimeo and YouTube, but none here. And, as I mentioned above, Boxee has the extra box that'll let you access your account directly from a box jacked into your ISP, bypassing your computer entirely. Boxee and Hulu -- the NBC/Fox site that streams full episodes of much of the most popular content on television, current and past (hey, don't tell me you didn't watch the original Beverly Hills, 90210) -- finally stopped their squabbles, too, and you can watch Hulu through Boxee again.
Ordinarily, not being able to watch Lost in its final season would have sent shivers down my spine, but we can watch it online the following morning. With far fewer commercial breaks, I might add. And on my television, not my small laptop screen.
The networks and service providers need us far more than we need them, at this point. The success of Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible" Web series in 2008 showed that anyone who has any sort of a following can stage top-drawer entertainment online. It was free for a while, then taken offline and made available through iTunes.
People will pay for quality television, but on their own terms. The Comcast Fancast Xfinity TV program, part of the cable industry's "TV Everywhere" initiative, is the first step any cable company has made toward recognizing that. More than 30 networks are allowing their shows to be streamed online -- legally. This includes premium networks such as HBO and Showtime and basic cable favorites such as AMC and TNT. Just one catch: You still have to be a Comcast subscriber to partake in the program.
But, for the first time, networks that have never allowed their shows to be legally streamed online have relented. For now, I'll have to wait until this season of Big Love comes out on DVD in order to get it through Netflix. But I can imagine a time not too far down the road where, for a small fee, I would pay to get just HBO or Showtime through Boxee or whatever new service hasn't been imagined yet. I'd pay a small premium each month to get just HBO.
Cable's been a lot like mainstream newspapers: Giving you a little bit of everything, whether you're interested in it or not. No longer a viable option.
So will the consumer truly be the one to suffer? Sure, in the short term. In fact, I have a friend who was crushed to turn on the TV when she returned from vacation last weekend and discovered her beloved Food Channel was no longer available. Bereft, she was unable to do anything but eat oatmeal for a day, as she'd lost her inspiration.
But when I told her about all the options and my thoughts on the coming television revolution, her eyes lit up. Kinda like Emeril when he tosses those spices into his latest creation.
As with newspapers, it will take some time for this to all settle out. In the interim, some cool content will be lost, some will be discovered and some quality shows or networks caught in the middle will disappear. But when the dust settles, I would imagine the consumer will have won.
We'll be able to choose what shows we want to watch. And when. And where. And we won't have to scan through 500 channels of nothing to find that we're back at the beginning, but another time slot has passed, so we need to start all over again.