How Unbundling Television Will Go

With HBO and CBS announcing plans for digital subscriptions, the future of television continues to look like people choosing what to watch rather than being corralled into overpriced packages. But there is a grave uncertainty in it. What if viewers trade one overpriced cable bill for a set of overpriced services?

The average cable bill is around $80. So that’s roughly four options at $20 each or eight at $10 or 16 at $5. But prices and content offerings will not be uniform. So you might pay $20 for a couple, then $5 for a couple.

But businesses want you to pay them more money. If a business is selling a package for $20, but you really only want one item from that package, eventually they’ll decide to sell it to you. How long will that take? They already do this through syndication. The whole business model of HBO is a secondary market. After the theater, before cable or network, the studios can rent it to HBO. Or Netflix, or whomever.

In all likelihood it will shake out to:

  1. Premium, first-run services
  2. Pay-per-episode and -per-season services
  3. Big-tent, tertiary-run services

So you might really want to see a lot of what one vendor puts out. You’ll buy their first-run service for $20. And then you might have a few shows from other creators that you want, but not enough for their service. There you’ll buy a season pass or the like. And then you’ll get a big-tent service to provide you with older content.

For first-run fiends with a heavy case of fear of losing out, the post-unbundling world will likely be about as expensive as it is now. It will be cheaper if you don’t watch a ton of content or are willing to wait. Will it be cheaper if you can stand to watch some advertisements?

Advertising is a big question mark. It will likely appear on the big-tents, at least at the lowest rung. It will probably be limited in pay-per setups. But it remains to be seen if it will show up in the premium services. The age of the DVR has tons of people just skipping over ads as it is. Why they bother with them when they’re easily skipped is unknown. Even if you couldn’t skip ads, the modern viewer can just pivot to checking a social feed while a muted ad plays on.

Another big question is in integration. Sure, with a streambox like many companies offer you can integrate multiple streaming services. But will the general purpose computer be stuck with separated apps and sites? Will a streambox App come that lets you integrate streams, or will that be blocked by streaming companies?

Unanswered questions aside, the new rules look a lot like old rules. Patience is a virtue, and can save you money on content. Fear of losing out is a losing strategy. Keep your friends close and your weapons loaded. Wait, that one’s for zombies. Maybe the biggest rule will be: there’s still very little content worth your time, no matter how cheap or how much content there is to choose from (with the caveats being that there’s more of it than you recognize, and you’re often wrong about what you want to view).