Gene Steinberg's Tech Night Owl Newsletter — Issue #1047

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Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Tech Night Owl Newsletter
December 26, 2023


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Watching TV in the 1960s was really very easy. You just plugged in your set, connected an antenna, turned it on and you were all set. Well maybe. If you didn’t live in an area where a roof antenna was allowed, you’d have to stick with a rabbit ears, and you might have to manipulate it to work differently with each channel.

In my day, having most stations emitting from the same transmission tower (the Empire State Building) in New York City made it easy. One setting, and all was well. Well, not quite. My obsessive desire for a perfectly clear picture was never filled. It was always a little ghostly.

Segue to my travels to small towns around America to begin my broadcast career. There were usually no nearby stations, or perhaps just one. A proper roof antenna would be hugely expensive even if it were allowed. But then there was cable TV, originally defined as “community antenna television.” It worked by setting a large receiving system to pick up distant channels, and wiring neighborhoods to pick up the signals on a portable receiver. Hence the cable or set top box.

In those days, I had cable where it was needed, but even then signal quite wasn’t quite pristine. This was particularly true when I was living over 100 miles from the nearest transmission towers.

It all settled down with pristine digital signals, which premiered in 1994 but took years to spread to all or most local stations and cable systems..

Things began to get complicated when the FCC mandated that cable systems in the U.S. originate content in the 1970s. This policy was usually satisfied by offering a channel or two of public access content, meaning that most anyone could arrange with the service to produce live or recorded shows free or for a low price. Indeed, I had my first exposure on TV via a regional cable system’s own studio facilities (in the basement of the local radio station).

Over time, cable-only networks arose to deliver networked content, in a sense mirroring broadcast TV. These networks were often owned by the same companies. An example is the USA Network, and SyFy Channel, which originally offered repeats of old shows. Over the years, they began to originate their own scripted series, some of which were edgier than broadcast content, or at the least were different.

Such programs as “Stargate SG-1,” based on a successfull movie, which lasted for 10 years, bred two spinoffs, and still has a loyal following. Another popular contender “Monk” starring the amazing Tony Shalhoub as a brilliant Sherlock Homes-type detective who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A small number of channels, such as HBO and Showtime, exacted an extra fee in exchange for content that was sometimes surprisingly explicit, including foul language and nudity..

As more and more channels were added to the cable bundle, the offerings became downright confusing. Although there were different bundles at different price points, getting what you want to watch without wasting time scanning numerous channels became impossible. The phrase “300 channels with nothing to watch” had meaning.

Worse, the carriage fees the cable companies had to pay to offer a channel — plus the rising costs of infrastructure — combined to steadily increase the price of admission. Sure there special deals for new sign-ups — or if you threatened to quit — but it still became a matter of paying too much for too little.

Until cord cutting arrived, ways to ditch cable (or satellite) and save lots of money. Maybe.

It pretty much began in 2007, when Netflix, an online video rental service, began to stream some of its movies and TV shows via your Internet connection. It worked beautifully, well except for the possible impact to the cable company’s bandwidth limits.

The next step was all-too-obvious: Original content. Netflix invested billions of dollars to originate its own programming, making lucrative deals with actors and producers. With huge budgets, some of these shows excelled when compared to traditional broadcast fare. Take “House of Cards,” which originated in 2013, about a corrupt husband and wife. Some of Marvel’s second tier comic book super heroes, such as a very dark version of “Daredevil,” also premiered and lasted for several years.

With the success of Netflix, traditional entertainment companies got into the act. Today we have Amazon Prime, Apple, Disney, Max (formerly HBO and HBO Max, featuring Warner Bros. content), and Paramount (formerly CBS All Access, which includes Showtime) and Peacock are among the major contenders. Smaller services such as Acorn (featuring UK, Australian and New Zealand content) and MGM+ offer more choices. Each service has its own pricing schemes. Normally it’s a basic package with limited advertising and a higher-cost tier that’s ad-free.

I haven’t begun to list all the streaming systems, but it’s clearly gotten out of hand. It can also become expensive, as you pay anywhere from $4.99 to $22.99 each per month. The latter is for Netflix’s Premium service. Combine a few systems and it adds up. Worse, each streamer requires a separate app or login to connect. Some of larger services, such as Amazon Prime, will let you bundle other services via the same interface.

Even more confusing, some cable providers embed a streamers apps in their set top boxes. It all gets so complicated.

If you decide you want basic cable or satellite plus some streamers, you are likely to end up paying more than you did when it was just cable. Rather than coping with one user interface, you have to deal with several, each billed separately, which makes switching from show to show a lot more complicated.

In other words, cord cutting may not be the answer. If you’re close enough to local TV stations, you might just want to set up a digital antenna and give up on the rest, or maybe one or two streamers.

That said, it hasn’t been so easy for the streamers either. While Netflix continues to show a profit, Disney, Paramount and others are still trying to cope with red ink from their huge investments in content. Indeed, there are published reports that Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery are talking about a merger. In theory, if they’re not discontinued, it would place Star Trek, Superman and even CBS and CNN under the same corporate umbrella.

And then there’s the Comcast entry, NBC/Universal. What prey tell would they do under these circumstances, or would it become a three-way merger. Confusion, confusion.

In the end, some of these streamers will combine, or at least more of them will bundle services with one bill and one app. Suddenly it begins to resemble a streaming version of cable TV without the local outlets. But there are also streaming versions of the satellite providers, such as DirecTV and Sling (Dish Network) and YouTube.

And you thought you gained something from dropping cable, or cutting down on the extra channels.

In the end, perhaps an updated version of cable TV, offering streamers as direct-access channels, with more options to customize the packages to your needs, is the ultimate solution. As you see, it’ll be little more than what cable used to be, maybe with more choices of content. Alas it’ll be no more affordable.

What goes around, and all that.


Gene Steinberg’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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