I cut cable several years ago after I found myself clicking through all those channels without finding much and realizing how much that clicking was costing me each month.
The solution was a digital antenna that brings me 43 free channels. It cost less than $100 dollars instead of the well over $1000 – per year – I was paying Comcast. And, for only $120 a year, I get Netflix with tons of movies and other TV shows.
Originally, TV was free in the US, paid for by commercials. England followed a different model. BBC viewers paid a yearly subscription, instead of watching commercials. It gave the BBC steady income, which allowed for consistent, high quality content.
One problem for the US was poor reception in mountainous areas. The solution to that came from John Walson of Mahanoy City in the mountains of Pennsylvania. He put up a huge antenna, let a few neighbors help pay for it, and thus invented cable TV.
Cable TV adapted the BBC subscription model, but with one big difference. The success of cable TV shows was measured by customer ratings, not government bureaucrats. With steady incomes, companies like HBO and ESPN got great ratings because they produced great content. They helped cable take huge swaths of audiences away from free TV.
Rather than improve their shows to compete with cable, free TV chased larger audiences by chasing the lowest common denominator. Enter “Reality TV” and trashy syndicated talk shows. Free TV is now in an ever-increasing downward spiral.
But cable has an inherent problem. Companies like Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner and others are purveyors of hardware, not content producers. With no sense of good content and a well-known disdain for customers, they bundled content good content with lousy content, and continually raised prices, forcing people to pay more, for more channels they didn’t watch. Cable TV is now fractionalized, expensive and, with the exception of HBO and a few others, boring.
The solution to that was – is – the internet, or streaming.
Viewers hate commercials. And content producers hate financial uncertainty. So primary streaming services – Netflix, Amazon, etc… adopted the subscription model, not the commercial one. And because subscription allows producers to make better shows and movies, they attract more subscribers. That’s why Apple, and soon Walmart, are jumping into it.
Which brings us to TV news and newspapers.
Some cable news producers have followed the free TV model of delivering lower content, which results, inevitably, in lower revenues. The best example is CNN. What started as 24 hours of hard news is now 24 hours of mostly talking heads.
Fox News, by contrast, started a whole new content model: talking head propaganda masquerading as news. They have been followed, with somewhat less success, by MSNBC. The good news: these channels have renewed the public’s interest in politics – a benefit to democracy. The bad news: propaganda destroys democracy.
Things have been looking look bleak for newspapers for years. Because of their 24-hour delivery system, cable news has upended most newspapers. Just last week, The New York Daily News cut its staff in half. Now there are only two big papers in the biggest city in the country. Smaller papers, those without the finances to support strong content, are disappearing like lightning bugs at dawn. Overall readership is at all-time lows.
But circulation is up at The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, AP, and Reuters. Why? Content with an assist from delivery. They still have the most reliable news and, because of the internet, now have the fastest delivery. Reporters file stories on-line, almost in real time. Cable and TV can’t do that. They can’t have LIVE cameras in that many places. Technology has given newspapers a second chance. Now all they have to do is provide better content than cable news.
And the successful ones are. Instead of just covering daily news, they are providing other content, too. As I write this, the BBC News includes stories on climate change (how the Netherland keeps water at bay), and organ donation (The case for more male donors). The Wall Street Journal writes about a paralyzed vet getting back on a motorcycle. Local papers, like this one, cover news that doesn’t make national headlines, but directly effects local readers. All successful papers have opinion writers, unique to that paper, who write about everything from school controversies to mansplaining.
The key to good media is good content.