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Is Fox/Time Warner deal final nail in concept of free TV?



Cabletv Couch potatoes of a certain age can remember a time when the notion of paying for television service seemed as far fetched as, well, charging people money to drink water.

But in a modern world where consumers snap up H2O at $1 a bottle and even a cup of coffee costs $4, is it any surprise that the concept of free television is nearly extinct as the dodo bird?

Already, most of us pay something to watch television. According to The Nielsen Co., something like 90 percent of TV-watching homes get their signals from either cable or satellite TV services. Still, we always had the sense that free TV was at least an option; an alternative to the endlessly rising cable bills which can get big as a car payment without much effort.

So is Fox TV's recent success in wrangling rebroadcast fees from the Time Warner and Bright House cable systems the final acknowledgment that nothing is free in the TV world anymore? Or a harbinger of something else?

Fox_vs_Time_Warner_Cable It's hard to know for sure, because Fox, Time Warner and Bright House will not divulge the terms of their new agreements, despite holding millions of subscribers in limbo Friday as customers faced the possibility of trying to keep up with a busy weekend of collegiate and pro sports events without access to Fox and Fox Sports programming.

The New York Times' Brian Stelter notes today that Time Warner raised its subscription fees as it was cutting a deal with Fox, at a time when the average digital cable customer is already paying $75 a month.

And even though the Fox/Time Warner fight ended Friday without disrupting service, Scripps Television yanked the Food Network and HGTV channels from the Cablevision system on the same day over the same fight.

Critics say it is time for a la carte pricing, where consumers pay only for the channels they watch. But I think such a system would destroy what works about cable -- namely, the idea that a myriad of viewers can watch the channels focused on their specific interests. Instead, channels would be pressured to focus on formats drawing the most viewers, because otherwise, they'd have little hope of being seen or earning revenue.

As advertising grows increasingly unable to support free broadcasting, we're facing a TV world segregated by how much viewers are willing and able to pay for access. The wealthy get Mad Men and Dexter while the less fortunate are stuck with The Jay Leno Show and permutations of Big Brother.

As ABC/Disney prepares to fight for its a piece of the retransmission pie, there is no expert who doesn't expect cable fees to keep rising, turning television into a utility which costs more than electricity or water service.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:04pm]


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