Commentary: Cable TV, we need to talk

I'm leaving you for my PC

Give me one reason to continue subscribing to cable television.

With every passing day of late, the evidence seems to mount in favor of dumping what a TV addict like myself once considered a lifeline. But the more I consume television and other video via PC and handheld devices, the less my cable bill makes sense to me.

The most recent nail in the coffin came from Nielsen Co. (parent company of The Hollywood Reporter), which issued its annual "Television Audience" study last week. The study found that while the average number of TV channels in U.S. homes has reached a record total of 118.6, the percentage of channels actually watched has decreased, to 13%.

Basically, I'm paying a lot more for less usage. Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that cable subscriptions have increased 77% since 1996 -- about twice the rate of inflation.

There's no shortage of reasons why Americans seem to be blind to this disconnect, but a new study of online video consumers out last week from Ipsos MediaCT confirmed what is certainly true in my household. It found that Internet use is cannibalizing TV time, which dropped to 70% in February from 75% the previous year.

In just a few years of existence, YouTube and iTunes have ingrained a grazing mentality in me that has rendered obsolete the traditional television I've subsisted on for thirtysomething years.

It's not as if the cable operators don't get it. Just look at what Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt indicated last month, suggesting the company eventually would enable consumers to throw out their set-top boxes and get Internet video via wireless cable modem.

As if I'm even going to wait that long. There is a mind-numbing number of devices that funnel Internet video from PC to TV, including the new Netflix-driven Roku. It's only a matter of time before I buy one of them.

It doesn't help that my multichannel provider, Time Warner Cable, has been less than graceful in the customer service department. No wonder the city of Los Angeles filed suit against the company last week citing shady methods and marketing.

But the operators don't have to bear the burden of my scorn alone. There's more than enough to go around for the programrs, who have long argued that a la carte pricing would effectively destroy its business model. Britt also sent a shot across their bow as well, noting that operators shouldn't be expected to pay them more for programming that they are increasingly making available free online.

Truth be told, a la carte pricing doesn't make that much sense to me, either. While it might be peachy to cherry pick the channels my household watches most, the whole notion of a channel -- this linear feed of scheduled programming -- seems ridiculously anachronistic to me.

Is it outside the realm of possibility that I could pay a subscription fee that entitles me to pick not channels but a predetermined volume of individual programs? Certainly this could be created without the complexity of a Chinese restaurant menu.

And yet even if there was something that enabled me to watch 100 episodes of anything, for, say, $10 per month, that too might seem archaic. Just as the entity of a channel seems dated, so too does that of a episode given that much of online video consumption of TV shows is done in segments that break episodes into a handful of multi-minute pieces.

Consider how I view what I think is one of the funniest shows out there, Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." My TiVo doesn't record it because I don't want to stockpile five episodes per week. Because the channel is not in high definition, there is no incentive to watch it on my 42-inch screen. Instead, I visit the network's Web site on occasion and binge on segments. Don't recall the last time I took in an actual episode though.

Sorry, Big Cable, but this isn't easy for me either. We go way back together; I still remember the astronaut planting the MTV flag in the moon in those promos for the music channel when it was still just a music channel. But there's just too many reasons for me to cut the cord for good.
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