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Cord-Cutters Find No Easy Solution to Replacing Cable

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For years now, cable and satellite subscribers have been complaining about the lack of a la carte options. If you want ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, ESPN, Comedy Central, and BBC America, you’ve got to pay for a package that includes dozens or even hundreds of additional channels that you might never watch -- or certainly wouldn’t watch frequently enough for you to voluntarily pay for them.

In the typical cable or satellite scenario, the first four channels listed in the previous paragraph would be part of a basic service tier, while the next two would be part of an expanded package, and the last one would be available only with a top-of-the-line subscription, which may or may not include premium channels such as HBO and Showtime. So consumers frequently find themselves paying $50 or more a month just to get the one or two channels that they want beyond basic service. Don’t like it? Tough.

In recent years, of course, things have begun to change. Consumers are able to build something approximating the kind of a la carte viewing experience that they want -- provided they’re willing to combine over-the-air or basic cable with a few select subscription over-the-top services such as Netflix and Hulu, along with the occasional rental or purchase from a service such as iTunes or Amazon. They can only do that if they have the right combination of a smart TV, set-top box, or mobile device. Oh, and they have to be willing to settle for the occasional drop in video quality, inability to watch what they want on the device they prefer, or even the dreaded “iTunes is not currently available” message.

In 2012, Aereo, Inc. emerged in New York City with the promise of delivering live broadcast television over the internet. Not surprisingly, the service was immediately met with lawsuits from broadcasters that claimed that Aereo’s streams were essentially public performances of copyrighted work. As of this writing, the courts have sided with Aereo, and the service is planning to roll out in 22 more cities, including not only top 10 markets but also smaller markets such as Madison, Wis., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

Partially due to Aereo’s threat, ABC recently became the first network to make its live-on-air broadcasts available over the top, though initially only in New York City and Philadelphia, and even then only to consumers who could authenticate that they were current subscribers to a cable or satellite service. Authentication is a tried-and-true strategy for cable-only networks such as ESPN, but this is the first time a broadcaster has tried it. So if, like me, you’ve cut the cable entirely, you won’t be able to access ABC’s live feed online, even if you’re currently receiving it for free via a digital over-the-air antenna. I’m also a Hulu Plus subscriber, but ABC announced that it will be reducing the amount of programming it makes available there and on ABC.com.

Setting aside for the moment the fact that I really have no interest in any ABC programming, this move illustrates just how far we have to go until over-the-top delivery comes anywhere near replacing, or even offering a viable alternative to, the cable and satellite status quo. In our house, we’ve got three televisions, including a Sony model with Google TV, plus a Roku box, a TiVo, and an Apple TV. Most of our “television” viewing is done by my kids on my 27" iMac, followed closely by a combination of Netflix, iTunes, Hulu Plus, and Amazon via Roku box and the Apple TV, with DVR’d episodes of The Voice and The Brady Bunch reruns through the TiVo a distant third. You should see the instructions we have to leave for babysitters.

If this is what a la carte viewing looks like, you can bet that most consumers will keep doing what they’ve done for decades: Pony up a hundred dollars or more a month just to get a dozen channels that they want and 10 times that many channels that they never watch. You might even think that’s just the way broadcasters and studios want it.

This article appears in the June/July 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Be Careful What You Ask For."

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