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Broadcasters worried about people abandoning TV? It's their own fault!

A special TechnoFile rant

By Jim Bray
April 17, 2013

Ah, so the poor TV broadcasters are worried about how to respond to people dumping cable in favor of the Internet? Cry me a river.

They have no one to blame but themselves, and they've been working at this for a long time now.

According to an April 7 report from the Dissociated, er, sorry, Associated Press, "a growing number of (people) have stopped paying for cable and satellite TV service, and don't even use an antenna to get free signals over the air. These people are watching shows and movies on the Internet, sometimes via cellphone connections. Last month, the Nielsen Co. started labeling people in this group "Zero TV" households, because they fall outside the traditional definition of a TV home. There are 5 million of these residences in the U.S., up from 2 million in 2007."

That's a big, quick jump in people saying "screw you" to the networks, though so far it's only a trickle. But it wouldn't surprise me if this trickle becomes a tsunami as people realize they don't have to spend $100 or more a month to get a bunch of channels they don't want in order to watch a few shows they do.

So the broadcast network biggies apparently spent the recent NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention in Las Vegas huddled together, trying to figure out what to do about this potential hit to their revenue streams. I'm willing to bet they don't have a clue, however.

But, not surprisingly, I do have some thoughts on the topic and they cover not only the "Zero TV" phenomenon but some other, related issues that go right to the heart of how these folk treat those from whom they want to make their money.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a real free market guy, but I also believe in offering value and in treating your customers right. And that, to me, is the core of what's happening here. It has little to do with technological advance giving viewers more choices – though I bet that's what'll be blamed for all Hollywood's woes – and everything to do with a public tired of being treated like nothing more than a wallet. After all, TV is nearly ubiquitous, but a lot of the new choices require additional hardware purchases and perhaps other expenses, so it's easier to stay with TV than to abandon it. Yet people appear to be abandoning it.

So here, in no particular order, is my "Bottom 10 List" of why people may be tuning out broadcasters:

1)  Expensive. You pay through the nose for hundreds of channels, but you can scroll through the guide and not find anything worth watching. A la carte channels, where you pick and choose what you want without being forced to take channels you don't want, might help here.

And digital cable/satellite often requires extra receivers if you want to watch TV in more than one room of the house, and the providers of the set top boxes charge per device. Yet Netflix works on any device as long as it has the app and you have an account.

2) Commercials are becoming more and more intrusive. I don't mind commercials as a tradeoff for free programming, but if you're paying for cable or satellite you aren't getting free programming anyway. Not only that, but in order to ensure advertisers get their pitch in front of your eyes, they're resorting to putting ads right over the show – sometimes obliterating the credits in the process or just blocking off the bottom portion of the actual show. My son tells me he's seen shows actually pause for a few seconds as well, as an ad is inserted into the body of the programming that way.

And it's hard to actually read the closing credits any more, or listen to the closing theme, because they shrink the show down into a little window, filling the rest of the screen and the audio feed with promos or commercials.

So why would I watch the network broadcast when I can wait a while – often not very long – and watch the same thing without commercials, either via Netflix, the inevitable DVD/Blu-ray release, etc.? It isn't as if most shows are so time sensitive that I can't wait. News may be time sensitive, but the news media have been doing a fine job of destroying their own credibility over the years, and so anyone who actually believes what they tell you any more should be slapped – or at least used as a target for selling swampland.

3) Loud commercials. Doesn't it seem as if the commercials blast out of the TV speakers far more loudly than the shows? This is supposedly illegal in Canada now, but I haven't noticed a change, despite the CRTC's regulation change of the past year or so – and despite consumer complaints for decades.

4) Networks whose names belie their programming, and which have duplicate, sister networks that run the same shows over and over again. Discovery/Discovery Science, History, Space (SyFy in the U.S.), DIY/HGTV, National Geographic, TLC (The LEARNING Channel?), etc. It almost seems as if the same half dozen programs – cheap to produce reality (i.e. home renos or pet programs that always seem to use the same type of flaky "real people") or pseudo science (UFO's! BigFoot!) programming.

Heck, you can catch the same shows multiple times during the day, on multiple channels. So why have multiple channels, especially if you have a PVR and don't have to worry about being on hand when the show actually airs on one particular channel?

4) Flaky Schedules. Used to be a series had 26 or more episodes per season. Not any more – and even if you do learn to love a show and tune in for a new episode, chances are the network will throw in repeats during the season, delaying new episodes in the process. Sure, this stretches out the season, but it's almost as if they're trying to make us think we're getting a full season the old fashioned way, when they're merely padding the season with endless repeats sprinkled throughout the new episodes.

They also shuffle shows' time slots. It can get so that you never know when your favorite show is going to be on – and then, since no one can find it and therefore not enough people watch, it gets cancelled.

5) Padding the schedule with endless repeats in syndication. Okay, I didn't really watch Seinfeld the first time around, but it's hard to miss it now and I'm glad I caught it this way. But that's the exception. How many times do I need to have the same episodes of Big Bang Theory (my current favorite TV show) on my TV each day? It's already in syndication even though it's still in production – and it isn't the only such show. And it's overkill. Why not run a classic show? Is it because the old shows might remind people that there were shows once that didn't just go for the cheap laugh, push an agenda, or try to gross us out?

6) Programming undermined by what appears to be a "corporate mindset," where conscious and/or creative thought is replaced by a "play it safe" mentality. Speed TV is a prime example here. Before Speed was Speed it was Speedvision, and covered a wide range of topics, from cars (Remember "Victory by Design?"), aviation ("Planes of Fame"), boating, you name it – if it had an engine, they covered it. It was a great guy channel – Testosterone TV, if you will.

Then Fox bought it and it became more of a NASCAR channel, with Barrett-Jackson auctions (hooray!) and some other, more obscure racing series (hooray!) and cheap to produce "reality" shows thrown in. And now it's apparently going to be just another sports channel, as if there aren't enough already. Which corporate suit had the bright idea of taking a somewhat unique channel and turn it into just another entry in the sports channel universe? Seems like a pretty stupid idea to me, but it's probably cheap to do and requires less thought. Or maybe it focus tested well…

7) Other choices. More broadcasters are offering their content online, though I haven't watched any TV that way. My son tells me the shows are free and the ads are less intrusive, though you're limited to watching on a computer in Canada (I believe Bell will let you stream programming, but I doubt this is free and even if it is "free" it'll probably use up your data plan.

So why spend a hundred bucks or more on cable or satellite when any Internet-enabled home can get streaming TV from the TV channels' websites directly (even if you have to watch it on your computer) or, better still, when you can subscribe to Netflix for $8 a month? Netflix' selection in Canada isn't very good yet, but that should improve over time – and most TV is crap anyway – and for its minimal price you get "all you can eat video on demand." There are other services, too, such as Hulu and Vudu, though neither of them is available in Canada yet.

The rise of smart TV's may accelerate this evolution.

8) Overriding of U.S. TV signals with Canadian feeds. This one won't affect U.S. consumers, but it has bugged me for many years. Time was when Canadian channels running American shows would broadcast them a day or two before the U.S. network broadcast – an interesting way of encouraging Canadians to watch the Frostback feed instead of the Yankee one. But for many years now, the Canadian broadcasters have been allowed to override the U.S. feeds with their own, which means you get Canadian commercials (Superbowl, anyone?) and promos – and sometimes you get to watch the show start twice or end abruptly as the feed overriding starts or stops suddenly.

This is lazy on the part of Canadian broadcasters and it's unfair to consumers – and it also means Canadian TV networks don't have to compete for viewers (other than between the various, protected Canadian networks) because they have a captive audience that's forced to watch their broadcast even if they prefer the American feed they're paying for. Why spend a hundred bucks a month on cable to access American channels when you're not allowed to watch them anyway?

9) Content producers treat their customers – the people who make them their profits – like criminals, with their endless and ubiquitous anti-piracy warnings at the beginning of their programs. These consumers aren't the pirates; they're the profit makers! If the content producers want to put a message at the beginning of their products, why don't they say "Thank you, we appreciate your business?"  

Is it because they don't?

And I've heard that, in a delicious bit of irony and Schadenfreude, pirated content doesn't have these messages!

10) Anti-piracy measures that affect the performance of consumers' electronics. Yeah, I'm talking about you, HDCP. HDCP was forced into the HDMI standard to make pirating digital high definition content impossible, and it doesn't do that at all. It makes it more difficult for the average consumer – the people who aren't pirating anyway.

What it does do, often, is cause "handshaking" problems between the TV, the audio system and the media/disc player. I've run into this many times, as have most of my acquaintances. I know a professional installer who says HDMI is a nightmare in the commercial industry. Heck, I had to buy a new HDMI cable when I upgraded my system because the handshaking problems were so severe that programs became unwatchable.

There you have it. While some of these aren't specific TV issues, they are all interrelated. And it all boils down to the media now being in danger of getting what it so desperately deserves. It's time they tried using some common sense, find a unique niche for their product, and treat their audience – without whom they wouldn't exist – with respect. Just like any business.

It ain't rocket science!

Copyright 2013 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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