What’s a TV channel? Many kids under eight years old – who have always had access to Netflix – struggle with the concept.
My kids just don't understand live TV. #5 is gettin upset I can't skip the commercials and "just start the movie".
— Anthony Nelson (@MacAnthony) July 1, 2012
Like the pager, cassette tapes and fax machines, the very notion of the TV channel is becoming obsolete. Kids don’t watch channels; they watch shows. Repeatedly.
“Television executives already share horror stories about how their children have asked them what a ‘channel’ is,” according to The Economist. And they’ve good reason to be afraid: the 24-hour-a-day, continuous stream of video interspersed with advertising – the “channel” – is what most revenue models for TV programming are built on.
But the notion of the TV channel is only intuitive to adults because it’s familiar – and kids growing up without it have little patience for it.
With Netflix and dvr's my kids can barely watch a live show on tv anymore….they lose their minds during commercials
— Kris Aquaman (@Aquaman2014) January 2, 2015
Bringing An Obsolete Concept To The Web
If you’re a regular user of Netflix and a DVR, it’s likely the main reason you ever interact with “channels” anymore is because they’re the only real way to watch live events on TV. And if there’s one live thing people watch a lot of, it’s sports.
Which brings me to Sling TV, the most-hyped thing to come out of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. From Dish Network, this $20 a month service gives you access to live TV channels like CNN, TBS, Disney Channel and ESPN. From what we’ve seen, it’s a great service – the interface is much better than anything done by cable companies, and the ability to jump between devices is great.
Most of the focus, however, has been on four letters: ESPN. Numerous outlets are reporting that, finally, cord-cutters can watch sports online.
But can they? Really?
ESPN: A Lot, But Not Everything
It all depends what sports you watch. ESPN is a national broadcaster, meaning they don’t broadcast every game from every sport all year. As a hockey fan, EPSN is completely useless to me – they barely acknowledge the sport exists. But even if you love football, baseball and basketball, access to ESPN probably only lets you watch a few of the games you care about. The biggest games of the year will all be covered, sure, but that’s about it.
This is perfect for casual fans, but not if you follow your local teams closely – most games they play in aren’t broadcast nationally on ESPN. The majority of sports events in the US are broadcast on regional cable stations, because there isn’t a national audience for most games.
ESPN is a ratings juggernaught, but it alone is hardly enough for the average sports fan. And for anyone who doesn’t watch the sports ESPN broadcasts, it’s arguably a ripoff.
According to The Consumerist, ESPN alone accounts for $6 of the average cable bill. This means that, if you don’t watch that channel, you’re paying $6 for something you don’t use.
So yeah, $20 a month for a few cable channels sounds like a good deal when compared to the $100 a month packages you can get from cable. But if you’re not a sports fan – or even a fan of the wrong sports, as I apparently am – the service costs 25 per cent more for you than it needs to.
Again, Sling seems like a really great service. But I don’t think it’s the future of television – at least, not the entire future.
Is Unbundling The Answer?
A common answer to this criticism of TV is unbundling, meaning companies should let people pick which channels they want and only pay for those directly. Every TV executive on earth will tell you this is unsustainable, because popular channels help pay for less popular ones (which in turn means there’s more for all of us to watch).
I’m not sure I buy that argument, but I’m also not sure there are many channels I’d willingly pay for in an unbundled world. Sure, paying for channels I don’t watch is frustrating, but so is paying for channels I’m only occasionally interested in. I love The Daily Show, but don’t really care about anything else broadcast on Comedy Central. I’d love to watch the NHL games occasionally broadcast on NBCSN, but basically everything else they air isn’t of interest to me.
I don’t want to pay for channels – I want to pay for content. It’s unlikely channels will ever be a great model for that.
Netflix gives people access to a wide variety of content for a low price. Will that ever happen for sports? Well, every major league currently offers some kind of online subscription service right now. I personally pay for NHL Gamecenter, and it works really well with one exception: blackouts. If a game is on TV in my local area, I can’t watch it – I’m told to pay for cable to see those games.
Workarounds, like virtually changing your region, are a legal grey area at best.
As for the blackouts themselves: this isn’t a technical problem. It’s a legal one, and some sports are solving it. Major League Baseball is close to ending blackouts for its online service. If other sports follow, suddenly ESPN looks a lot less relevant to people who only follow one league.
Maybe eventually individual teams could offer a cheaper option, with only their games, or even single-game access for casual fans. From there, who knows? A company could buy rights to a bunch of different sports, and bundle it all for one cost. That company will look more like Netflix – with hundreds of different live games and recordings to watch – than the TV channels – offering only one thing at a time.
Sling is possibly a good deal for the casual sports fan, happy to watch whatever’s being broadcast nationally. But the Internet is all about choice, and most consumers would love to see more of it.
If leagues can get their hardcore fans to pay them for broadcasts directly, and no one is forced to pay for channels that mostly broadcast things they’re not interested in, everyone wins (except TV channels, I suppose).
Death To The Channel!
Sling seems like a great way to bring TV channels to the web – but is that really something we should be doing? I’d say no.
Kids with iPads watching Netflix don’t care what TV channels are; there’s no reason you should either. They’ll be around for a long time yet, sure, but the reason for that has more to do with inertia and intellectual property deals than “channels” themselves being a good idea.
Some people still communicate by fax, claiming it’s for legal and security reasons. That’s stupid: there are much better ways to send text and images today than scanning a physical piece of paper and sending it, unencrypted, over a phone line. Someday those companies will update their process – just like sports leagues will also work out a better way to broadcast games online.
If not, leagues should start creating ads that explain not only what channel the games are on, but what a channel actually is.
Image Credits: Old TV Via Shutterstock