Despite a widespread public desire for a la carte TV, cable companies continue to bundle the goods.
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Is there a problem with your TV, specifically the cable TV experience? The de facto response from certain segments of the population is a resounding "yes." A more tech-literate audience has been eagerly craving something better ever since Apple began the rumor-manufacturing of the Apple Television, a product whose mythic fervor is perhaps matched only by a cold fusion generator or a perpetual motion machine.
Dig deeper, however, and even casual TV viewers will admit to the shortcomings of cable. Does your grandmother have legitimate gripes about pricing structure, or why she has to subscribe to three ESPN channels in order to get Turner Classic Movies? Can she even find her way through the labyrinthine menus or 40-button remote control? Mine can't either.
Okay, so the cable TV experience is terrible. Why? Foremost, perhaps, is that the cable companies have no incentive to innovate. That great driver of technology—competition—is largely absent. Cable providers tend to have monopolies in most of their markets. If one company undertakes the expensive, laborious task of laying hundreds of miles of optic cable, a second company is then less apt to repeat this process in the same territory; greener pastures are simply more appealing than territorial price wars.
With no competition, all the development that would typically go into luring customers is forgotten. As a result, you have these ugly, sluggish menus and arcane remote controls from the underfunded, under-performing R&D labs at Comcast, Time Warner, and Cox. Even if these companies wanted to go toe-to-toe on user experience with Apple or Google or even Netflix, they likely don't have the core competencies to do so.
Thinking outside the (cable)box
None of this is to say that cable companies aren't under assault from some type of competition. Netflix reports about 30 million subscribers. Apple, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, and a host of others are building up their arsenals of movies and TV shows. Their strategy is simple: anything you want, any time you want, on any device you want, with flexible payment systems based on your appetite. And guess what? Americans tend to have a pretty big appetite for entertainment.
The field is filled with hardware, software, and service solutions all vying to get around your cable box and put something you like on your TV screen. This was incredibly apparent at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, where the TV manufacturers are battling it out for the smartest "smart" TV. From what we saw on the show floor, Samsung appears to have the lead with an interface that aggregates all content sources (Netflix and other streaming sources plus your cable box content) and displays them in a single interface, rather than having to open each application one at a time. Want to watch Iron Man? It will tell you every service you can stream it from at that moment, as well as telling you that it's on the FX channel right now for free. If it works, that would be a huge coup for Samsung, though we're suspending judgement until we can try it out in the real world.
An insurmountable challenge?
Competition such as we saw at CES, where the "best" TV is the one with the best looking design, the slickest interface, and the largest number of content partnerships, stresses the real hunger for a better TV viewing experience. So why isn't it here yet?
There are a couple very good reasons, and they're both hard truths to get around. First, while you hate the cable company, in most markets they own all the pipes going into your home, and they're not very likely to just lower the drawbridge to let the invading hordes into the castle. They have every reason to throttle your speed, jack up your rates, or simply refuse to play ball with the competition. The Net Neutrality Bill is one thing, but you can count on the cable companies to put up a long and dirty fight.
The second, equally troubling issue is the networks. As Gizmodo points out, all the would-be players that have tried to create an a la carte TV system have been stymied by intractable networks who realize that they make more money in the current system. It may have been a while since you looked at the "About Us" page on NBC, SyFy, or USA, but they all belong to Comcast, along with several other channels; TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network... they're owned by Time Warner—the very same companies that own your cable and internet pipes. Do you really think they're in a hurry to create a la carte TV?
It's also a fact that the cable companies have some reasonable defense of their product. They do offer content on demand, and a fair bit of it. Yes, the variety is not great and the interface is downright caveman compared to dedicated streaming services, but there it is. Maybe you should make peace with your cable box, because you're probably going to be roommates for a while yet.