The free ride's about over for cable TV cord cutters

Jim BartholdThe blanket statement "there is no such thing as a free lunch" is riddled with holes. Of course there's such a thing as a free lunch; it's just encumbered by another blanket statement: "you get what you pay for." It might not cost you anything to chow down on plate scrapings from the local greasy spoon, but what's that worth anyway?

The same train of thought can be applied to the Internet and, by extension, the mobile Internet. Lately there's been an almost daily onslaught of stories--more of which are part of today's newsletter--suggesting that there's a wealth of free content available for those who want to cut the cable cord. Why pay a service provider when everything's there free on your computer or phone? Almost hourly some blogger lays down a tract entitled, "I cut the cord and now I'm watching what I want, when I want and where I want. So there, big cable. Take that. Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!" or some similarly adult demonstration of glee.

As with a free lunch, though, there are enough holes to fill the Albert Hall. First off, there's no such thing as free Internet. Somewhere, somehow, unless you're scarfing down on your neighbor's unsecured WiFi connection, you're paying to connect to the World Wide Web. The better content, of course, requires a broadband connection and the more powerful the connection the deeper you must dig into your pocket to pay for it.

The second hole concerns the type of content that's free. The most readily available stuff is only slightly more palatable than the greasy spoon plate scrapings. It's homemade amateur stuff that's amusing on first glance and tooth-grinding on third email. It's YouTube in its rawest form. It's Facebook and all of the other social networks. It's not HBO; it's not even usually the best of broadcast.

The third hole is that it's free. Most content now has advertising attached to it as a matter of course and ads mean it's not free.

"Content has to be subsidized in some format. Either you can pay for content on a download, a pay-per-use, or a subscription basis or on my personal favorite, via advertising. For a consumer to get free content there has to be advertising," says Paran Johar, Chief Marketing Officer of Jumptap, apparently oblivious to the contradictory nature of his statement.

It's true. Cord cutters are not going to get free content no matter what they think. As their numbers grow, their chances of seeing anything without paying will decline correspondingly.

New technology gives service operators the chance to soften the blow by offering targeted advertising. Viewers would concede that ads will be there then tell providers what interests them. Those who like golf will get ads about golf clubs. Those who don't opt in are likely to learn about the dangers of ED drugs and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Here's a truism: history repeats itself. Back in the '80s a gaggle of people bought satellite dishes big enough to pluck extraterrestrial signals from Saturn. Besides annoying neighbors, these aesthetically displeasing dishes captured content that cable programmers were floating in the atmosphere as they bounced from transmit site to receiver. As the dish movement grew so did the desire to snuff it. Finally, cable programmers led by HBO did just that; they scrambled the signals and stopped the free ride. Satellite dish owners were offered decoders and programming fee packages to continue watching what they'd seen for free and to keep those expensive dishes operating or fold up the dishes and buy cable. Or, of course, the less morally challenged bought pirate boxes to steal the signals, but that's another story.

Today those big dishes still dot the landscape as stark reminders of a time when another group of viewers believed there was a way to get free television. Fact is, if you want steak or hamburger or even day-old donuts, you must pay something. That's a blanket statement without any holes. -Jim

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