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Cable television clinging to old media model

Things I Tell My Wife by Matt Knutson

“You’d think the cable company would take a hint,” I told my wife as she ignored its phone call again. The company has called us three days in a row now to give their monthly sales pitch about why we need to sign a contract to receive content we’re not particularly interested in watching. It was one of the first luxuries we cut when we moved from Iowa last March, and we haven’t looked back.

Cable is increasingly becoming a concept of the past, and online content providers are doing everything they can to make that happen. This week HBO announced plans to launch a standalone online service, and Netflix revealed that it will have all 10 seasons of “Friends” on Jan. 1.

There’s not much else I can’t get for free if I wait a week for it to show up on Hulu. Adding in Amazon Prime and upgrading to Hulu Plus and a basic Netflix subscription for the fun of it, and you’ve got enough content to keep you entertained for quite a long time at a price comparable to the cheapest subscription plan for my local cable company, plus the freedom to watch what I want when I want it.

What’s missing? Live television events like sports, award shows and news. A lot of that content has a supplemental online presence as well, meaning it isn’t a deal breaker for me to not have it piped through a cable box. Cable isn’t the first once-standard piece of media consumption to suffer from the stigma of being old technology. Television networks are adapting by implementing new tech within their shows, primarily in the form of social media. Reality shows are inundated with live tweets appearing all over the screen and hosts frequently encouraging viewers to join the conversation online. Are they joining in? Recent studies suggest they aren’t.

“Nielsen surveyed U.S. Internet users on their TV/social habits and found that more than eight in 10 (83.9 percent) did not use social media whilst watching television,” wrote Shea Bennett of Mediabistro’s All Twitter in April 2014. “Moreover, of those that did use social whilst watching their favourite (sic) shows, just 7.3 percent were chatting about the program being watched.”

To remain viable, cable needs to adapt in other ways. When television was first taking hold, radio felt its fair share of growing pains. Now it is television’s turn to evolve. Much like radio, I think cable television still has a place in the marketplace, but finding that niche is essential to success. Licensing content to online companies like Netflix and Hulu works for content creators, but content distributors depending on providing viewers content delivered straight to the television are struggling.

I learned in college the best way for radio stations to remain relevant was to localize. Their content changed from being something people gathered around in the living room every night to enjoy, to in-car entertainment, and the industry survived.

I’d love to see cable television attempt to do the same. The local news broadcasts are honestly what I miss the most from our lack of a cable subscription. Harnessing the local strategy might be able to sustain cable’s content delivery, but they’ll need to be innovative in their process.

As generations grow older, the expectation of on-demand content is increasing. We’ve adapted our lifestyles to doing what we want when we want it, and that means fewer people are settling into their couches each night for dedicated programming. Understanding that flexibility is key for cable to succeed, which is why show recorders like TiVo coming pre-packaged with a cable subscription would be a great start for an industry needing to adapt.

Right now when the cable company calls my wife, her phone displays “Cable Company Don’t Answer” as the contact name. Until it is ready to provide content closer to our terms at a reasonable price, it just doesn’t make sense to spend our entertainment budget on their service. Now that I can get every episode of “Friends,” “The Office,” “30 Rock,” and “Parks and Recreation” in one place to watch over and over again, I’m pretty satisfied that my entertainment needs will be met.


Rochester resident Matt Knutson is the communications and events director for United Way of Olmsted County.