WASHINGTON, D.C. — A decade ago, Americans were grinding their teeth about the cost of cable TV.
Cable franchises, which have monopoly power in most U.S. cities and counties, were jacking up the bills on subscribers because their cable packages included channels subscribers weren’t watching and didn’t want.
The cable companies said, in essence, there was nothing that could be done. Even if the technology did exist to remove certain channels a subscriber didn’t want, they argued, it was only going to cost more to give the customer fewer channels — a disincentive if ever there was one.
Ultimately, some cable franchises started offering “boutique” channel packages, and they were right. They did cost more per channel. As a result, for most of the 2010s, the number of cable customers slid downward to the current estimate of 53.22 million, down from its 2000 peak of 68.5 million.
Some have been siphoned off by satellite TV, which offers hundreds of channels. Some have gone back to over-the-air TV, which has adopted digital technology and can offer multiple subchannels on the same spot in the dial — an offshoot of what cable used to be like 35 years ago.
In recent years, the movement has been to streaming TV. People can watch streaming TV on their televisions (duh!), but also on their computers and even their phones.
Like any cable channel, a streaming service has to offer the right kind of programming mix to be attractive. Some services load up on content as if every meal is an endless all-you-can-eat buffet. Netflix paid $100 million to Warner Bros. TV just for one more year of the decadelong sitcom smash “Friends.” But now that Home Box Office, with the same corporate owner as Warner Bros., has launched its own streaming service, “Friends” is making its way to HBO Max.
Streaming eliminates the tyranny of watching TV on their schedule, not yours. You can order up anything that suits your fancy that a streaming service has available.
But for adults who have long been concerned about the content of network and cable offerings, they must keep in mind that not every offering on every streaming service will be morally suitable for everyone in the household to watch. While it may be a priority for a streaming service to have a selection of programming for all demographics, adults in charge of the screen still need to know when to say no.
It’s also important to note that “streaming” does not mean “ad-free.” Some free services are advertising-supported. If sports fans want to watch their favorite teams, they’re likely going to pay a monthly fee for the privilege and still be subjected to ads. YouTube is free on the internet, but viewers are subjected to ads. YouTube TV, intended to be a cable replacement with 70 channels from which to choose, will carry ads and charge $49.99 a month for the basic package.
And since there are already more than 100 streaming services covering everything from news to entertainment to documentaries to sports to cable-channels-without-the-cable, it’s possible a cord-cutter may want to subscribe to more than one service. If that’s the case, don’t be too surprised if the total cost starts approaching that of the monthly cable bill.
It also may come to pass that you’ll like streaming so much you’ll wonder why you confined yourself to the TV set in the first place. However, if you like streaming too much, you may run up against caps set by your internet service provider if you decide to binge-watch every series you liked when you were 12, then turn your attention to comedy specials.
USA Today took note Dec. 7 that data caps go away when cities or regions have competition among internet service providers. Sadly, too few parts of the country have authentic competition. Be careful, or they’ll make you pay — if not with unwanted cable channels, then with a surfeit of content you’ll never get to in your lifetime, or data caps, or multiple streaming services.
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