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

| Analysis

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.

Next: No Eyeballs, No New Shows

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I understand your premise, but I think that’s old school thinking. At one time I remember similar arguments about why the Big Three Networks were responsible for the Golden Age of Television. That worked for a while but then a better way came along. 200 channels of which we watch a small percentage may have worked for the last ten or fifteen years but it’s day has passed.  I looked down the list of programs you mentioned. There’s much of the same and better stuff on the web.

Look at the channels that are running on the internet only. They survive on merit, not subsidies from more popular networks. The number is growing. Soon YouTube will be adding their own programming. Netflix and others can be had directly on your Mac or even some TVs. Even better there are more specialty feeds, like Crackle which has lots of Anime, or Acorn which has all sorts of British material. That is the future of Television. Bloated packages of ten channels where I only want one is the past. When anyone can set up their own channel on the web that will win or lose on merit we will see the next Golden Age. That is the future. It’s a future without a Roku, or Amazon Fire TV, or I’m sorry to say even an AppleTV. Just a connected device and the Internet.


Imagine walking into a bookstore intent on buying a cookbook.  The clerk tells you they have that book, but you must buy it as package with 9 other books. including a children’s book and others on art, horror, gardening, murder mystery, science fiction, history, politics, and religion.  And a news magazine. It’s a broad selection, but no books you want, and some you abhor. The package costs 5 times the printed price of the cookbook. Shocked, you leave that bookstore and go to others nearby. But it’s the same story there. You look online, where you can only see a few pages of the desired book, but again it’s a bundle of books you don’t want. This is what TV has become.

While the US Department of Justice sometimes acts to protect booklovers from inflated prices, they, strangely, see no market manipulation or conspiracy by content makers, networks, cable or satellite companies. Could the DOJ just be waiting to jump on Apple once they get involved?

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