The Slow, But Steady Demise of Cable

Frayed Cable

Almost four years ago in a fit of pique over bad reception and high prices, we ditched cable television. It was very satisfying to take our cable boxes and remotes down to the cable company and say, “Here, we’re done with these.” The woman in the service center wasn’t really our antagonist, so we just politely told her why we were ditching our service, and as we were leaving she good-naturedly said, “Good luck, but feel free to come back if you miss us.”

We haven’t gone back yet.

We did what more and more people have been doing over the last several years. We subscribed to Netflix and Hulu Plus. We bought a couple of $20 pancake antennas at Wal-Mart (the price has gone up recently, but they’re still a bargain). We discovered that our viewing habits improved. We watched shows we missed the first time around – like Monk and the full series of The Office.

We watch documentaries and foreign films. Every once in a while, we have to go out to catch a Diamondbacks game with friends, but hey, we might have done that anyway.

There are actually a few things I like about cable companies. Over the years, I’ve met a good number of executives who work for these companies. So far, every one of them has been lovely, intelligent and driven people. Over the years, I’ve made a little money investing in the stock of some if these companies.

Good people. Financially responsible companies. But they have forgotten one of the cardinal tenets of business: listen to your customers. If your customers spend decades telling you that your prices are too high and that they are unhappy with your monopoly, don’t be surprised when they grasp at other options. If your hear jokes over and over again about “200 channels but nothing’s on,” don’t wonder why they are pursuing options that give them more choices on demand.

Here’s what cable customers want… What they have wanted for years…

  • High-quality programming, offered on-demand.
  • Watch-anywhere flexibility.
  • Alternative language programming.
  • Reasonable prices.

On the first two items, I will admit that the cable companies are doing better. They all have some sort of on-demand programming, and it continues to improve. They are beginning to offer options to access content on multiple screens, giving more location flexibility.

Alternative language programming isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I live in Phoenix, so there are plenty of Spanish language stations. But my chosen second language is French. It would be nice to have access to France 2 or TV5MONDE or Canal+ to try to keep my vocabulary current, and to expand second language exposure to the general populace. And if I change my mind and decide to learn Italian, or Mandarin, or Farsi, it would be nice to be able to strengthen my skills with TV.

It’s the last bullet that’s the key. My electric bill costs approximately what our cable bill did, and that just doesn’t seem right. Google might not have introduced Chromecast if the average cable bill was $20 per month. There’s a new service called Aereo that likely would not exist. Hulu Plus might never have launched. Netflix might be out there, but with a slightly different business model. Or it might have never gotten off the ground.

If the cable companies want to capture loyal customers, they need to stay current in what customers want. Otherwise, they face the fate of Kodak, insisting that “digital can’t possibly replace film,” until all their customers are gone. Then, if they really want to reduce the threat of competition from services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Aereo, they should lower their prices.

It’s really that simple.


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