Sudden Drop in Cable TV Subscribers — Film At Eleven!

1950s television set

Creative Commons photo by John Atherton.

Jacqui Cheng over at Ars Technica comments briefly on the report by market research firm SNL Kagan that the growth in cable TV subscribers reversed itself in the second quarter of 2010, “with six out of eight cable providers reporting their worst quarterly subscriber losses to date.” As in, ever.

Cheng and SNL Kagan analyst Mariam Rondeli cited a number of reasons for the drop; first and foremost, second-quarter subscriber growth (or in this case, loss) can’t be taken as gospel, “thanks to housing turnover in college towns.” While this makes sense, it sort of disturbs me that college students are that large a share of the market. But there’s more to it; Rondeli suggests “economic factors such as low housing formation and a high unemployment rate contributed to subscriber declines in the second quarter.”

Not that anyone cares, but those “economic factors,” as I see it, might have to do with the insultingly high rates that cable TV providers charge.

Some of you may not be old enough to remember the glorious days when it wasn’t HBO, it was TV — but they were glorious. TV used to be free and of fantastically high quality — four channels only, with two of them showing nothing but MASH reruns from midnight to four a.m., plus some fuzzy thing from the next county over featuring Belarussian programming on Tuesdays and Fridays, Spanish and Chinese programming on the other days based on an alternating-week schedule, plus strip club ads after midnight.

Now, consumers can watch all the Law and Order they goddamn well please, plus enough cooking shows to stuff every American yuppie’s mouth with Seven-esque quantities of seared salmon-gorgonzola bruschetta. We get to watch what we want, when we want it, provided what we want is exactly the shit our cable company decides to provide us, and when we want it is when the hell they want to give it to us — unless, of course, we’d like them to charge us extra for Tivo.

And how much do these highwaymen charge us for the privilege of rotting our brains? Zillions! Zillions, I tell you! Zillions!

Cable prices are so high for a good reason — cable companies are de facto regional monopolies. What the industry really fears is a la carte cable, which would demolish cable companies’ exploitative pricing structures. Lucky for them the government is too namby-pamby to require that option; it keeps being mentioned as an option, but never goes anywhere. After regulating the airwaves for years with an effective — if, at times, troubling — iron hand, my guess is the Feds are just tired of working so hard.

Cheng asserts: “As someone who canceled cable four years ago, I can attest that even when you spend money on whole seasons of your favorite shows from iTunes and pay for a Netflix subscription, you can still save money.”

I’ll agree with her, and stop there — because Netflix has its own problems, from the way it handles new releases to the way it pays small-scale indie producers.

And iTunes? As far as I’m concerned, iTunes should pour itself a nice hot steaming tasty mug of I-will-kill-you-while-you-sleep.

But even if Netflix, iTunes and DVD and download purchases are the only outlets you use to get your media consumer groove on, you’ll be doing a hell of a lot better than subscribing to cable. Technology only empowers the individual when the individual beats technology with a tire iron from time to time — and the cable companies have been getting a free ride.

Hopefully, American consumers are finally realizing that.

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