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Pay TV: Too much for too much?

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In the beginning, there were really only three major television networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. If what you wanted to watch was not airing at the time you wanted to watch it, you were quite frankly outta luck. These “big three” networks provided all the sports, entertainment, and news that people saw on TV, and they had to do it all since they were the only networks anyone watched (not counting local stations). This was all due to technical limitations and the fact that infrastructure wasn’t very well developed yet. Manufacturers of TVs set them up to receive a fixed amount of channels, having a single channel knob on the cabinet that would turn the TV off if set low enough.

As time went on, improvements in broadcasting technology allowed for more channels to be broadcast at once than through over-the-air (OTA) TV, and thus cable and satellite TV were born. These new variants used large networks of cables and satellite dishes to provide better reception, quality, and a larger coverage area than traditional OTA TV. To use these new technologies, many TVs needed to be fitted with a set-top box that contained a TV tuner; a device that would unscramble and translate the cable and satellite signals to a language the TV could understand. Now users weren’t limited to only 11 channels, and 60-70 was the norm. Instead of having 3 or 4 channels that provided a wide range of content for all audiences, many new channels employed the use of narrowcasting; only broadcasting certain types of shows for specific audiences. As technology continued to get better, more and more channels were able to be crammed into cable and satellite transmissions, and in the early 2000s companies such as Comcast and DirecTV started offering monthly deals for HUGE amounts of channels, well over 900 of them, which leads me to my ultimate question: how many channels do we need?

Looking through the TV Guide menus on my set-top box, I know that I’m missing out on a lot. You can only watch one TV show at a time, and at any one time there are 900+ channels going with whatever happens to be on. It seems like a real waste to me, as the only channels I really watch have numbers less than 70, and even at that I never have any need to visit any channel from 10-30, as nothing that appeals to me ever is playing. Smart money would say I should downgrade to a package which only has 70 channels instead of the full 900, but there are some pretty awesome channels above 70 that I like visiting that require me to pay for all of them.

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If I watch 5 channels each week, and 2 of them are in the premium tier, wouldn’t it be better for me to pay for only those five instead of all the ones I’m not watching? $80 per month is an expensive proposition for 5 channels, wouldn’t you say? Here’s what I propose instead: what if we paid each month a flat rate for the set-top box rental fee and a reasonable fee for the basic tier content, but then we’d have a choice: either the classic premium tier 900 channel deal or a new one in which you first select the premium channels you know you want to watch and you pay for unlimited viewing for the entire month for those channels. The TV listings for every channel will still show up in your guide though, and if you go to a channel you haven’t subscribed to and want to watch, you can either set up an unlimited subscription to it right from your remote, or you can buy 24 hours of viewing for a few cents. If you only watched 5 channels, you’d pay in proportion to what you use. In my opinion, this would be a big win for consumers, but I don’t know whether or not it’s feasible from a business standpoint.

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With the advent of narrowcasting, it doesn’t seem right that providers still make us pay for the broadest selections of channels. To conclude, I hope that someday a change will be brought about in this flawed system.

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