Cable companies are finally wising up to the reality that offering so-called “skinny” and “customized” channel packages may be the only way to retain customers as more of us weigh the option of cutting the pay-TV cord entirely and rely on broadband and over-the-air delivery instead.
In my case, after years of pleading with cable operators to decouple sports from the tyranny of take-it-or-leave-it channel packages, I waved my consumer wand and, Poof! Sports be gone.
It’s no secret that cord-cutting continues to outpace projections. According to eMarketer’s latest U.S. pay TV/over-the-top forecast, the number of cord cutters (defined as any adult who has ever cancelled pay TV service and continued without it) will climb 32.8% this year to 33 million. That’s higher than the 22% growth rate (27.1 million) projected in July 2017. Can you blame the cutters? The research firm Kagan, S&P Global Market Intelligence estimates that the average annual bill for TV service surged to $1,200 last year from $700 in 2000, far exceeding the growth of inflation or wages.
My triple play subscription (TV, phone and Internet) from Verizon FiOS had soared to $219 a month, including two premium channels, up from $150 a month (including four premium channels) in 2016, when I first signed up. The 295-channel Preferred HD bundle I had bought into for the last two years came with five ESPN channels, three Big Ten Network channels (college sports), Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, NBC Sports Network, SportsNet New York (Mets and Jets games), and the YES Network (Yankees and Brooklyn Nets games). Hey, it could have been worse. The 476-channel Ultimate HD bundle would have added 25 more sports channels including NBA TV, the NHL Network and the New England Sports Network.
When I phoned to complain about my most recent rate hike, the creepily-knowledgeable FiOS sales person pulled up my household’s viewing history and determined that by switching from the Preferred HD package to the Custom TV Infotainment & Drama package, I’d only be losing Ovation and AXS TV in terms of what my household actually watched. Neither seemed much of a loss.
I took the bait and switched to the new plan. Then, I sat down in front of my TV and discovered the Promised Land. The cable box had been reprogrammed, and the results were startling. Now, when I landed on a sports channel, the screen was redacted. It was silent and black except for some text indicating that if I wanted the channel, I should contact the cable company. Sure, I used to surf past and ignore sports channels entirely. But now, I found myself going to them on purpose for the satisfaction of knowing that EPSN could no longer sell my demographics to advertisers.
I once dreamed of bringing a class action suit against ESPN for forcing cable companies to carry the network at the expense of viewers who did not want it. I figured that over the decades I’d forked over more than $4,000 in fees to the network. And for what? The Scripps National Spelling Bee once a year? I called it taxation without representation — a tariff placed on non-sports fans used to subsidize sports-aholics and team owners.
Admittedly, those of us who couldn’t care less about which teams are playing in the World Series are constitutionally incapable of rallying the passions of sports fans. Avidity does not run in our veins when it means keeping an eye on any type of ball. That’s why the new cable landscape is a hit. We’ve always had the right not to buy a pair of Air Jordans or a baseball cap emblazoned with a team logo. But it’s only now that we’ve gained the freedom not to enrich ESPN and still get our Syfy and MSNBC, too. As a cable TV consumer, it’s good to finally be king.