Posted May 10, 2014 12:54 pm - Updated May 10, 2014 02:31 pm

Cord-cutter confessions: Reality TV made me do it

Many years ago, I hoped the reality TV fad would die.


Now I no longer care. I’ve become quite adept at avoiding reality-based programming. And by that I mean I no longer turn on my television. There’s no need to; I have no cable or satellite service.


The only action my thoroughly unsexy, non-high-def, weighs-a-ton TV gets is a hookup with my children’s video game consoles and a “leaf”-style digital antenna that would let me pick up over-the-air emergency broadcasts in case I happen to be home when Armageddon strikes.


Cable was nixed years ago. I’d grown tired of paying for programs I didn’t watch or didn’t enjoy. The bulk of those programs, in case you haven’t already surmised, were reality-based.


Unless you’ve been incarcerated or on a decade-long Peace Corps mission, you know of which I speak. You likely have seen one or more of those indulgent and overly-scripted faux-drama serials revolving around the lives of truckers, pawn brokers, prostitutes, dancers, repo men, storage-unit bidders, motorcycle builders, custom-car builders, housewives, house flippers, mountain men, lumberjacks, roughnecks, rednecks, guidos, commercial fishermen, chefs, bachelors, bachelorettes, wedding planners, obese people, dwarfs, duck hunters, alligator hunters, antique hunters, gunsmiths, prospectors, models, socialites, tattoo artists, ultimate fighters, executive apprentices and rock stars.


Over the years this dreck had hijacked some my favorite networks – such as The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel. Instead of flipping on the TV and seeing something on the Great Pyramids or a Luftwaffe documentary, I'd get Pawn Stars or Swamp People.


Now, I’m not saying there’s “nothing good on TV.” I’m just saying that what’s there is mostly bad. And I don’t want to pay for it.


Nearly everything I watch now is obtained through free (ad-supported) or subscription-based Internet sites that let me watch what I want, when I want. Most important, I pay for what I watch, not what I don’t. My kids pretty much do the same thing through their game console.


I’m what the paid-TV industry calls a “cord cutter.”


A recent report from Forrester Research predicts U.S. households without cable or satellite TV will increase from the current 18 percent to 21 percent by 2018. Optimistically titled “Marketers: Don’t Worry About Cord-Cutting,” the report suggests most consumers unsubscribing from paid TV are only moderate viewers anyway, and their decisions are mostly cost-driven, not because the Internet is magically meeting all their viewing needs.


I mostly agree with that. Yes, I was a moderate TV watcher. Yes, I cut the cord not so much because of mediocre programming, but because of the price I was paying to get that programming. And, yes, streaming online movies and TV shows doesn’t deliver the same entertainment experience.


OK, I admit it: I like TV. I liked flipping channels. I liked my surround-sound speakers. I liked gathering the family around the TV. I liked watching TV shows on the TV.


Still, I had to let it all go. I couldn’t continue paying so much for a “want” as opposed to a “need.” This also explains why I drive a Dodge instead of a Cadillac.


Giving TV consumers what they want – and none of what they don’t – at a reasonable price has challenged the TV business since Fraggle Rock was popular. The recent fight between DirecTV and The Weather Channel merely brought an old conundrum to the surface.


This was the impasse in a nutshell: DirecTV wanted The Weather Channel to reduce its distribution fee. The Weather Channel said no; it wanted to increase its fee. Neither budged and DirecTV made the pretty gutsy move of replacing the vanguard of all-things-weather with WeatherNationTV, a smaller (read: less-expensive) rival that consumers (weather geeks, mostly) found less appealing.
The companies pointed fingers at each other and traded barbs on social media for months until The Weather Channel capitulated last month to a set of DirecTV demands.


What I found interesting about the tiff is that DirecTV essentially invoked the mantra cord-cutting cable and satellite customers have repeated for years: “Sorry, you’re just no longer worth the price.”


DirecTV argued the abundance of free weather information and forecasts on the web, mobile devices and other sources made The Weather Channel no longer worth a premium price. That, and the fact that viewers who tuned in were more likely to see reality programming instead of a weather forecast.


I had no dog in the hunt, but I sided with DirecTV. I preferred the old Marshall Seese-Heather Tesch days, when the channel actually gave you information about the weather.


Weather Channel CEO David Kenny went so far as to give a mea culpa in a press release: “Our apologies to DirecTV and their customers for the disruption of our service and for initiating a public campaign. Our viewers deserve better than a public dispute, and we pledge to reward their loyalty with exceptional programming and more weather-focused news.”


Now, DirecTV is no victim, and The Weather Channel is no bully. As a stand-alone channel, it could never wield the power of a multi-channel owner such as Disney, which can force pay-TV companies to jump through a Chihuahua-size hoop by dangling ESPN in their face.


By the way, cable and satellite customers, sports networks such as ESPN (and it’s low-rent sisters ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Plus, ESPN Deportes, ESPN U, ESPN News, ESPN Films, ESPN Brasil, ESPN Classic, etc.) are the biggest reason your cable bill rises year after year, regardless of whether you watch sports.


Disney won’t let operators break ESPN out of “basic” packages as a premium channel (as is done for HBO and Showtime). The sports network is paid-TV's single-most costly channel by far, putting operators on the hook for $5 a month per subscriber when the going rate for most channels is much less than a buck. CNN, for example, is a bargain at just over 50 cents (unless, of course, you only watch Fox News).


“Right now, cable TV is like your electricity or water,” Robert Thompson, a professor television and popular culture at Syracuse University, told USA Today. “You just pay – at least until you can’t pay it anymore.”


So where do we go from here? I believe it’s “al a carte” pricing.


That’s a dirty word in the industry because for years it made little business sense. Look at it this way: A provider's fixed cost for serving a customer is the same whether they deliver one channel or 1,000. So customers who pay for anything less than all 1,000 channels is lost revenue.


Providers also argue un-bundling channels won’t result in lower cable bills, as there’s less wiggle room to spread costs between the expensive channels (sports programming such as ESPN) and the cheaper ones (such as Logo TV, the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender channel). Also, the least popular channels could disappear from lack of support.


All that may be true, but I still believe al a carte is the future. It is technologically and socially inevitable. TV companies and content producers will eventually figure out a way to make it work.


And that’s because they don’t really have much of a choice, but we do.