Giving people more options is generally a good thing, and the announcement on Tuesday that Verizon would offer a couple dozen FiOS cable TV channels through a new Xbox Live app certainly isn’t a bad thing. But it’s also a reminder of all that we still lack when it comes to consuming what we want to consume, and not subsidizing piles of stuff we don’t.
The FiOS deal sounds sweet enough—watch live TV through your Xbox 360!—until you realize it’ll require you already have a Verizon FiOS subscription. In that sense, Verizon’s deal is like all the others from cable providers who offer their services through devices likes computers or laptops. What sounds wonderful in theory—the ability to watch live TV without a cable box—turns out to require the cable box after all, and a regular subscription to boot. Instead of supplanting cable boxes, your computing devices become adjuncts to an aging, increasingly old-school method for consuming digital content, not the independent pipelines for discrete digital content they’re capable of being…and that so many consumers seem to be looking for.
Underlying all of this: The balkanization of cable content, which seems as inevitable now as its print analogue did years ago. In the late 1990s, if my wife wanted to read the daily comic strips, she had to buy a newspaper and pluck that particular broadsheet from the “entertainment” section, either discarding the rest, recycling it, or marking it for campfire (or fireplace) kindling. Today, by contrast, she just visits a website like GoComics.com and shuffles through whatever’s on offer. She hasn’t leafed through (much less bought) a print newspaper in years.
That’s had an understandably disastrous impact on print and related media, which spent decades subsidizing “hard news” reporting and content with lighter (and more broadly appealing) fare. People bought newspapers for stuff in the entertainment or “living” sections or the tucked-inside coupons, but wound up paying for all the parts bypassed and of interest to much smaller numbers of readers. For better or worse, that’s the way it goes–you can’t force people to pay for content they don’t want when that content’s available unbundled elsewhere.
It’s been a question in my household and among friends for years: Why, in this era of Netflix and Hulu and YouTube and I-pay-for-what-I-want-and-nothing-else, don’t we have the option to purchase a subscription to just a handful of channels? What if all I care to watch is CNBC? AMC? The CW? The Learning Channel? The Food Network? Some combination of those, or any of the hundreds of others?