How Unwanted Cable Channels Tricked Us into a Golden Age of TV

Apple TV TestingApple's years-long fight to offer a streaming TV service comes down to one thing: unwanted channels. Citing unnamed sources within the industry, Peter Kafka wrote an excellent piece for Re/code about Apple wanting to offer focused, stripped down bundles of television channels in a streaming service, and how this freaks TV executives out.

In general, I'm a huge fan of Apple's plans for disrupting industries. The cellphone market was made infinitely better by Apple taking control from the carriers. Buying music was improved by Apple's insistence on allowing customers to buy individual tracks online. The computing industry was saved from less-than-mediocrity by Apple not competing on price. The list goes on.

But, I'm not entirely sure television watchers would benefit by having our TV bundles shrunk. It would definitely be good for our pocket book, but an interesting thing happened on the way to the enormous growth in channels we are forced to pay for: TV shows got better. A lot better. And the number of great shows on at any given time has never been higher.

Apple Knows What We Want

Apple knows consumers range from being jaded about all our channel choices to being angry we have to pay for them. You know the routine. You call up your cable company, and the only way you can get all 10-20 of the channels you really want is through one or more bundled tiers that include a bunch of stuff you don't want.

Boom! Your cable bill is $60, $70, $80, or $100, and a lot of that money is paying for stuff you will never watch. Not once. Not ever.

"The optics are important to him," one unnamed executive said about Apple vice president Eddy Cue to Peter Kafka. "He doesn't want to have filler."

And that filler is what TV folks want to protect. While the four major TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) continue to dominate TV, those companies—or their parent companies—own scores of additional channels.

Not only do they make money by requiring cable and satellite companies to license them in order to get the main channels, they also get to use those channels to try out all manner of things when it comes to new programming.

That's where things get interesting for television watchers. That experimentation has given us many good things.

Great Shows on Also-Ran Networks

Take FX, a Fox-owned network that started life off as a home for reruns for Fox programming and has-been movies. Fox began experimenting with original, and often edgier programming on FX. That programming caught on, turning FX into a programming powerhouse. Justified (the best drama on TV when it aired), Archer, American Horror Story, The Americans, and Louie are just some of the most recent shows that frankly kick butt.

On USA, an NBCUniversal network, you've got Covert Affairs, White Collar, Psych, and Mr. Robot, and again, that's just some of the most recent shows USA has aired. SyFy, another NBCUniversal channel, has given us Battlestar Galactica, Stargate (et al), Defiance, Farscape, Warehouse 13, Killjoys, Dark Matter, and many more.

Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN, has its own roster of networks with original programming, as does Viacom, and whoever owns Discovery, Science, and the History Channel, all of whom also offer original programming that wouldn't have been possible 15-20 years ago.

And that's the thing. We are in a golden age of TV in my opinion, and part of that golden age of TV has stemmed from having an explosion of distribution channels. Once, some folks worried that diluting the talent pool of writers, directors, and actors would lower the quality of TV. It turns out the opposite has been the case as more creative people got opportunities to explore smaller, niche markets.

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At the heart of those possibilities was having all those channels on our TV in the first place. The mad rush to provide more and more channels of programming led the TV industry to compete ever-harder for our eyeballs, and one way to win our eyeballs was to make great programming. Whoda thunk, right?

FX still has a much smaller audience than Fox, but it wouldn't have any audience if Fox hadn't forced cable operators to take FX as part of the price of getting Fox (and Fox News). The same is true for all of the other conglomerates.

Apple TV Apps

Apple TV Apps

On the one hand, we, the consumer, have paid for that development process by being forced to take ever-larger cable packages that include channels we don't watch. On the other, it turns out we do watch some of them, and that has led to this bonanza of amazing original programming.

That is an inescapable fact.

Apple, it seems, has been keen to turn this formula around and win consumers by offering a limited package of 10-14 channels, a small enough bundle to keep the price at $30 (CBS CEO Les Moonves said earlier this week that Apple was shooting for $30-$40).

Apple believes (rightly) that consumers don't want these massive channel packages we get with legacy cable and satellite providers. And though Apple has offered TV executives a variety of additional tiers of programming (think sports package, for instance), those executives are keen not to let go of their current model.

To quote Peter Kafka, "While TV executives will say they understand that consumers don't want to pay for channels they don't watch, all of them will argue that their channels are must-haves."

When considering all this great programming available on these also-ran networks, I can't help but wonder if those executives are right.

Quick Devil's Advocate Position

A quick counter to my argument is that the Internet can, will, and is taking on the same role the explosion of cable channels played in this golden age of TV. Only, with the Internet, we aren't forced to pay for the development through unwanted and unwatched channels.

Netflix and Amazon Prime are also great examples of new distribution channels resulting in great original content, but both of those are direct-pay models that extract dollars from your wallet just as surely as any cable company.

There's merit to this thought process, not to mention a certain level of inevitability, but my central point remains. Consumers have paid out the nose for channels we say we don't want, but we have been rewarded with never-before seen levels of quality original programming.

A company like Apple can end the legacy bundled-channel business model of the legacy TV industry, but I suspect doing so will have a negative impact on the number of great shows we have to watch, at least until the Internet catches up and fills that void.