Thursday, March 14, 2013

With Rising Costs, Is TV Still Worth It?

(From the March 14, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It may seem odd, but occasionally lately I long for the days of low-tech TV. If you’re old enough, you may remember those days. You had to actually walk up to the TV and physically touch it, turning a dial, to change channels. This wasn’t much of a challenge, since there were only three or four channels. The only difficulty may have been fiddling with the tin foil “rabbit ears” you scrunched on the antenna to improve reception.

Why would I long for those days, you ask? Three reasons. Free content. Better content. Uncomplicated.

First, let’s talk about price. I’ve read several articles in the past few months that state the obvious but nevertheless were shocking to see it spelled out. We pay a lot for TV these days. Too much, in my opinion. As one article pointed out, there has been a 167% increase in what people pay on average for TV, including phone and Internet bundled in, over the past 10 years. The average customer pays $128 per month for this bundle, as compared to $48 per month back in 2001. That average monthly price seems considerably higher in West Michigan, according to my bill. It’s enough to cause me to get my underwear in a bundle, as they say.

I recently noticed an ad for the charter bundle for $90. But it’s for new customers only. I called and said I’ve been a loyal customer, why not a discount to reward my longevity. No, only for new customers. So you basically entice people and then jack up the price. She said something diplomatically vague and unsatisfactory. I said goodbye and then said something precise and unsuitable for family newspapers.

Of course, one of the reasons the cost is so high is because it costs more to create programs. And despite what you think, they don’t make TV programs just for fun—they want to make money. DirecTV, the second-largest pay-TV provider in the U.S., noted in another article I read  recently that it expects programming costs per subscriber to increase 8% in 2013. So they raised prices it charged consumers 4.5% at the start of this year.

I’m not the only one starting to wonder about the value of paying for what we used to get free, magically, over the air in the era of tin foil rabbit ears. Customers are looking at other options that involve cancelling cable subscriptions and watching their favorite programs via Netflix or Hulu online. Apple may introduce a new TV later this year that could disrupt the TV industry the way it radically changed music—people would buy one show or series (think song or album) at a time as opposed to subscribing to an entire package of channels. The Federal Communications Commission has debated forcing companies to offer “a la carte” programming, allowing customers to pay for only the channels they want. But there are economic, legal and public interest factors that make that unlikely.

The whole cost of TV is complicated. Entertainment companies that make the shows want to get paid for them. Telecom companies that enable us to receive and watch the shows also want to get paid. None of us want to watch ads so we use technology to skip them, which means advertisers pay less and cable companies have to charge more to make up the difference. We’ll either have to keep paying more or  see the return of ads that we are not able to skip.

My second reason for questioning the value of what we pay for TV has to do with the quality of the content. There’s a little known song by Bruce Springsteen called “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On).” We have more than 57 channels on most cable packages today, but I come to the same conclusion that Bruce did on many evenings. Aside from the utility of news, weather and sports, the quality of programming doesn’t seem worth the cost. There are too many tired detective and crime dramas, juvenile ‘reality’ programming, and other fare that either seems to bore or disgust me. My wife and I have found some shows we enjoy, but I start to wonder at the cost given the number of actually enjoyable shows.

Finally, I long for the old days when TV was less complicated. Back then you bought a TV, plugged it in, and turned it on. Now the TV comes with a DVR or box and a book thicker than a college physics text to explain how to use it.

My wife and I have three advanced degrees between us, but occasionally we hit the wrong button on our remote and turn off the system as opposed to just the TV. This requires several anxiety-ridden moments of button punching before all systems are normal again. I rarely use any buttons besides power, volume, and channel. I’m not sure what all the other ones are for, but I think one can launch a missile.

I understand Apple, known for its intuitive design and sophisticated simplicity, is coming out with its own TV later this year that may revolutionize the industry. A TV that connects simply to the Internet and has a simple remote and a unit that you just plug in and go would be a huge step forward, and probably another blockbuster consumer product for Apple.

Until that happens, I have little choice but to sit in front of my current TV, confused, broke and bored.