Cable Industry May Soon Join Dodo in Annals of Extinction

Jeffrey M. McCall | February 13, 2018 | 12:37pm EST
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Cutting the cord (Screenshot)

A business model that forces consumers to pay for products they don’t want is headed for disaster. It doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to figure that out.  Such a misguided business model is especially doomed when the industry is known for weak customer service and for offending consumers. That’s exactly what is happening now as cable providers get ready to join the dodo in the annals of extinction.

Approximately 22 million Americans have now cut the cord on their cable or satellite television services, and the rate of cord-cutting is accelerating. About five million people dumped pay-tv services in just the last year. Worse yet for the industry, over 34 million Americans are now considered cord-nevers, meaning they have never subscribed and don’t intend to. Of course, new streaming services are a factor in this landscape change, but the wide majority of cord-cutters cite the high cost and greed of cable providers as primary reasons for dumping service.

Cable/satellite television prices have skyrocketed in recent years and providers insist on selling channels that consumers don’t want and won’t watch. The average pay-tv subscriber watches fewer than twenty of the average 170 channels they must pay for to get the channels they really do want.

Various citizen groups, including Consumers Union, AARP, Free Press and the Parents Television Council have urged cable companies for years to offer a la carte pricing.  That would allow consumers to pay only for the channels they want.  Sure, that could cost the cable giants money in the short term as consumers opt out of certain channels. In the long term, however, this strategy would keep more customers connected to the cord. Basically, cable companies must ask themselves if they would rather keep a customer who pays for a limited number of channels or lose that customer entirely.

A key concern for many cable/satellite viewers today is that they must pay to support channels that contain offensive and outrageous content.  TNT is such a channel. A show on TNT, “The Alienist,” has been described in a review on The Atlantic as the “grisliest period drama yet.”  The review continues, “The Alienist is a veritable grab bag of triggering visuals and nauseating images.”  TNT also programs “Claws,” a show that last summer had an episode in which a female character explained about prostitution to grade school girls, complete with coarse language. Promoting cultural rot is hardly the way to keep consumers.


Now comes notice that Syfy and USA cable channels (both owned by NBC) will allow use of a particular “f” word in their dramas. One show in which the f-bomb will surface is “The Magicians” on Syfy. The series co-creator, Sera Gamble, celebrated the development, “We all just feel more like ourselves when we can use the word “f---” It feels honest. And it’s just a perfect word.”  It might well be the perfect word for scriptwriters who can’t think of a better way to express an idea or emotion. Just don’t demand that all cable customers should have to pay to hear that word in television “dialogue.”

Adaptation is the key for any industry when market forces change. The cable industry has not adapted and that failure has prompted customers to flee. For too many years, the cable industry got fat by bundling dozens of channels together into packages and just assuming that consumers would pay the exorbitant costs.  Parents Television Council President Tim Winter once called such pricing a “forced-extortion scheme.”

The PTC, however, recently commended T-Mobile, which has announced plans for a new television service that would provide what Winter calls “consumer-centric unbundling” of channels. It will be interesting to see how that new pay service actually develops and if other providers move in that direction. If the cable industry fails to change paths, you will someday, perhaps sooner than later, be more likely to see a dinosaur in your neighborhood than a cable television truck.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University.  He is a recognized authority on media and journalistic ethics and standards, having been interviewed and quoted by over 125 newspapers. He has made over a hundred appearances on radio and television shows.  He is a contributing op-ed columnist on contemporary media issues, and is the author of the book "Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences."


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