The site uses cookies that you may not want. Continued use means acceptance. For more information see our privacy policy.

How Unbundling Television Will Go

Unbundling sounds great, but how will it actually play out?

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).

Content Programming Harms Content

Some ways that the top-down content models harm their own commodity.

Stagnant, mismanaged markets harm consumers. The broken video media market stands out as a broken marketplace. Relatively few competitors. Highly-coupled market components such as distribution with content makers make for less customer choice.

Tight-coupled markets mean decisions arise from the top or center rather than from the bottom or edges of the system. Akin to central planning, the oft-criticized anti-feature of most communist systems, decision concentration leads invariably to inefficiencies via poor decisions.

Content programming harms content. It arises from the market structure, and programming lead to poor decisions. The most criticized result of content programming comes in cable news. People lament the low quality of cable news content, while pointing to the need to fill “24 hours” as the cause (of course, it is not truly 24 hours, as the cable news networks show repeats overnight, excepting extraordinary breaking news).

But time-to-fill harm pales in comparison to the very notion of the timeslot. Timeslots arose from the radio and content programming there. A vestige of broadcasting, they filled the need to provide content over the limited resource of the airwaves. When broadcasting began on television, the limitation of the delivery medium continued to exist, as it did over cable television.

Advances mooted these limitations. Attention bottlenecks content delivery much more than distribution today. And yet content remains coupled to the timeslot, due to the broken market. So-called gluttonous viewing of content via video streaming services such as Netflix points to future erosion of the timeslot, but consumer expectations may keep it and its harm alive.

Many programs run longer than they need. This leads to filler content that weakens pacing and increases plot predictability. The occasional show runs shorter than it needs, leading to abbreviated or lost quality content (subplots and the like).

The same harms show out in the series or season model used for most television content. Shows may be cut short before their time due to the programmers’ incorrect expectations of popularity. Or they may run several years beyond their time due to the wish to reap as much profit from a once-popular, once-innovative show.

These things apply to the film industry as well. Sequels to movies that should never have been made, or shorts being turned into features when the short time serves their story better.

So-called webisodes also point to erosion of the programming norms. Free web-exclusive shows often arrive on irregular schedules and yet retain strong viewer bases. Discovering the true breadth of the actual video market will take years of erosion of the status quo. It may be that a certain amount of regular-release, traditional-length will remain, or in fifty years the only shows that come out at 22-to-30 minutes will be throwbacks and re-runs.

Just like storage media dominated by floppies helped limit the types of expressions of early computers, we’re certainly being limited by the current limits imposed by content programming.