For years, cable TV companies had a powerful sales pitch: What the hell else you gonna do? You wanted ESPN, CNN, Disney Channel, you paid the price.
Now, the cable box in your living room is suddenly under assault. Sony and Dish Network’s Sling have recently launched their own TV bundles, available over broadband. Apple reportedly plans one in the fall. In addition to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and CBS All Access, HBO is finally about to offer its service online without a cable subscription, just in time for the premiere of Game of Thrones.
Consumers, fittingly, have greeted this news like the slaves of Meereen greeted Daenerys Targaryen. Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Cutter of Cords! But in my print column in TIME this week, I suggest you not get too excited–at least if you’re hoping that the streaming revolution will mean you’ll be able to watch everything you want for less money.
For starters, you’ll still need broadband, likely from the same company who now sells you cable, and there’s no reason that bill won’t skyrocket. (Today, you often get it at a cheap introductory rate, possibly because you bundle it with cable.) The most popular offerings (sports, prestige drama) won’t be nearly as cheap as you might assume if you strip them away from the cable bundle. And none of the parties involved–telecoms, media giants, tech corporations–are sitting in their boardrooms dreaming up ways to get as little money from you as possible. (My full column is for TIME subscribers, because we too are trying to make money in the content business.)
That said, there are other reasons to be excited about streaming TV besides money. One, which I’ll write about more in the future, is that changing the way TV is delivered has the potential to change, and hopefully improve, the kind of TV you see. It already has, to an extent. The best TV show of 2014, Transparent, wasn’t on “TV” but on Amazon Prime. And the Netflix Effect on TV has had repercussions far beyond Netflix itself. It’s very likely, for instance, that a big part of the reason The X-Files is getting a second life on Fox is that it had a second life on Netflix, becoming relevant (and thus valuable) to a new generation of viewers.
But I’m also curious to see how streaming services change, and I hope improve, the experience of watching TV. Take something as simple as how you find a channel. The practice of numbering channels is a holdover from the rabbit-ears broadcast days of TV, yet it continues with cable, where you scroll through a grid of hundreds of channels through a cumbersome, lag-prone interface. (I watch TV for a living, and even for me it’s harder to find a channel I rarely watch on my cable system than it is to get driving directions to a city I’ve never been to.)
Compared with that, the interface for finding “channels” when I use Apple TV, or Roku, or even my kids’ PS4 is at least a process that feels like it belongs in the 21st century, with channel names and icons and more usable search functions. As I write in my column, I don’t expect Apple, busy rolling out a smart watch that tops out at $17,000, to make TV a bargain. But I do think it could make it elegant, intelligible and useful. If they, or someone else, can give me a genuinely better interface with my TV, at least I might not resent so much the way they interface with my wallet.
As I say, I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this in the coming months. But I’m curious to hear from you in the meantime, in the comments or on Twitter: leaving aside the size of your cable bill, what are the things about your experience of TV that you’d most like streaming TV to fix?
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