When the National Cable and Telecommunications Association opened its Cable Show in Washington, D.C., this week, it did so as some of its most prominent companies extended one hand to reach its most technologically savvy customers and then slapped those same customers with the other.
On the kinder side of that exchange, Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts took the stage during Tuesday’s opening session, touting a video platform that makes personalized recommendations and upgrades the overall user experience. He framed it as an industry first, which led Stephen Necessary, a vice president at competitor Cox Communications, to point out his company had rolled out a similar product on a limited basis a few months earlier.
The fact that streaming providers such as Netflix and Amazon have been doing the same thing for years escaped both gentlemen as they displayed the kind of willful ignorance that makes cable companies more hated than airlines and only slightly less hated than a swift kick to the face.
That intense dislike was probably always there for consumers. But in the pre-internet era of limited options, we simply didn’t know any better, and cable providers could give us whatever they felt like because what else were we going to do? Hook up the rabbit ears? Not watch TV at all? READ A BOOK???!?!?!? HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!
Odds are maniacal laughter is no longer reverberating throughout the halls of U.S. cable companies. According to Leichtman Research Group, the 13 biggest providers that make up 94% of the market shed a total of 80,000 customers in the 12-month period ending March 31, 2013. That was the first industrywide subscriber loss since it started tracking those numbers more than a decade ago. Time Warner Cable (TWC) racked up 553,000 losses in that time, while Comcast lost 359,000.
And how are they fighting this trend? With the slapping portion of my introductory metaphor.
According to a report from Bloomberg, TWC and other operators have offered to reward media companies that “withhold content from web-based entertainment services.” The incentives range from carrots such as higher payments to sticks such as dropping their programming.
So, essentially, cable companies have seen the trend of consumers ingesting their sitcoms, zombie-centric dramas and sporting events via computer, smartphone, tablet or other connected device, and responded by raising their drawbridge and putting up a giant wall around their castle, all the while jamming their fingers in their ears as they sing the same song to a customer base that is increasingly not buying it.
Necessary warbled the latest verse this week, saying, “The reality is we offer hundreds of channels, plenty of content, tens of thousands of video-on-demand assets. We all know for consumers it is very difficult to find that content, so they all gravitate to the same channels they typically watch, or wander through video-on-demand searching for content. Quite often, they miss the content they have paid for and might enjoy if they had a better way of finding it.”
Yes! That’s it! It’s not that I shouldn’t be forced to pay for the Hub Network and its fine programming such as My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Or the Investigation Discovery Network. Or five women’s networks. Or 17 different ways to watch someone refinish a basement. It’s that I just don’t realize how great they are! Thanks, cable guy!
Sadly, these offerings are generally a package deal for cable companies. If they want Discovery Channel in their channel lineup, they also need to take Investigation Discovery and Science Channel and Military Channel and the English Channel and Coco Chanel. But surely the things cable providers do control, such as their equipment and interface, can be state of the art. They can give me a fast, responsive set-top box with a nice, clean channel guide that allows me to easily filter through hundreds of unnecessary options and find what I’m looking for. For services that nearly tripled in price from 2001 to 2011, it’s not too much to ask for a system that doesn’t look like and run as fast as an Apple IIe, is it?
Yes. Yes it is.
Fortunately for consumers, options grow by the day. Aereo, which delivers broadcast television over the internet for $80 a year, is the latest pebble in cable’s craw. Then there are the usual suspects, such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Nearly every major sport offers an online viewing package. Devices such as Roku, Playstation and Xbox can deliver those options and many more.
Maybe, just maybe, if they can keep the pressure on cable providers, we’ll be able to watch television whenever we want on whatever device we choose wherever we are at the time. Find a future airing of a show in less time than it took for the studio to produce it. Set our DVR to record something and have it actually record it.
These dreams may actually come to fruition someday. For now, imagine the possibilities. It’s a good way to pass the time while you reboot your set-top box for the third time this week.