Whatever Happened to Free TV?

The New York Times had a good article summarizing the rising costs of cable and satellite television as content-providers battle carriers over bigger shares of the per-customer fees.

Disputes between media companies are nothing new -- I switched to DirecTV way back when Cablevision initially refused to carry the YES Network in the Bronx, and I've never looked back. Now, Cablevision is in a similar stare-down with Scripps Networks and is not airing the popular Food Network and HGTV as they battle it out over a fair deal.

What's scary is that even supposedly "free" broadcast networks are getting into the mix -- News Corporation threatened to pull its local FOX channel from Time Warner's cable system in New York City unless they received a percentage of the per-customer fees. Although it looked like millions of New Yorkers might be deprived of watching the new seasons of American Idol and 24, a deal was reached.

CBS also started requesting fees a few years ago, and there's no doubt that Disney will negotiate some new fee contract for its ABC network. Comcast is in the process of purchasing NBC, but don't be shocked when it requests fees from the other cable/satellite providers to carry the Peacock Network.
(It will likely have to pay such fees itself to appease anti-trust critics.)

It makes sense that the big broadcast networks might feel a bit victimized as their business model slowly falls apart. The days of providing free programming to mass audiences (having advertisers pay for the millions of eyeballs glued to the TV sets) are coming to an end. Ad revenue is dropping as content competition rises -- viewers are now seduced by more broadcast networks, video games, the Internet, digital video recorders that allow them to skip commercials, and tons more cable networks which can earn money from subscription fees and advertising. The broadcast networks need to start generating more profits or they won't be able to produce any content, free or otherwise.

So everyone is scrambling to stay alive and develop new streams of revenue. This means the expenses are passed on to the consumers. Some people have suggested that we'll eventually have to resort to an a la cart subscription model in which television audiences pick and choose which channels they want instead of the current bundled package options. (Most cable and satellite subscribers pay for channels they never watch but are part of their overall payment plan.) The problem with the a la cart option is that the smaller fringe networks will suffer and people who watch a lot of television (like me) will actually end up having to pay a lot more for their television service (or give up a lot of content.)

Maybe we'll reach a point when the only truly free TV is PBS. Yet, even public television might eventually face the budget ax.

I believe that the marketplace will eventually weed out the crappy content and only the strong will survive. Or my worst fears will be realized and even some great content will disappear because it doesn't attract a large enough audience (i.e., subscriber fees). But then again, how different would that be from what we face now with our ratings-driven broadcast networks? Any of you who might have had a favorite TV show cancelled can feel my pain. I guess nothing is ever really free after all.


The_Lex said…
For all intents and purposes, PBS is not free. Peoples' and corporations' donations and taxes pay for PBS. Anyone who does not donate but watches is pretty much a freeloader.

Same thing with NPR.
Nick said…
There are also those who never watch PBS and wonder why their tax dollars should pay for it.

Like I said, there's no such thing as "free."