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Breaking Cable? Skinny TV Is an Inspiration

The real problem is people aren't buying what companies are selling.

Shannon Rupp 5 Mar

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

Rumour has it you can now buy a reasonably priced TV cable package called the Skinny Basic, or as I call it, The Too Little, Too Late.

I call it a rumour because when I began looking for the promised budget-conscious option in mid-February, I found it was tough to get the skinny on the Skinny. There was nothing on company websites, but I did find some CBC stories about how the big players -- Shaw, Bell, Telus, and Rogers -- were trying to keep word of this mandatory option from getting around.

Last week CBC uncovered the fact that Bell was coaching its (ironically named) customer service reps to downplay this package, which was beginning to look like a unicorn -- much discussed, never seen.

''Do not promote the Starter TV package,'' reads a Bell training document obtained by CBC. ''There will be no advertising, and this package should only be discussed if the customer initiates the conversation.''

It's almost comic. Imagine the scene playing out from some premium TV series about the anti-heroes controlling the cable, cellphone, and Internet industry. Let's call it Breaking Cable.

Picture the stars, all wearing $5,000 suits, discussing whether in the age of collapsing newspapers the public will get the memo about the CRTC mandating fairly priced cable.

''Maybe if we don't mention the Skinny no one will know? Just keep telling them their $212 a month packages include everything. What could be better than everything?'' says one lounge-lizard type, 62.

''But what about pick-and-pay?'' a younger, hipster character will moan, while twirling his waxed moustache. ''That's coming in December. How do they expect us to make $63 billion running the same home reno show, year after year, if we can't force anyone to buy it?''

Then came reports from the Toronto Star that the smarty-boots at Bell had thwarted the frugality by offering a basic package with the required Canadian channels and additions few have ever heard of -- meeting the letter of the CRTC law, but not the spirit.

In the West, Shaw appears to be playing fair with a package that most of us expect, including the major U.S. networks. (They'll be represented in my drama by a female executive.)

But it's not clear if this scheme will save anyone any money unless they don't want anything more than a few American channels. It's predicted the pick-and-pay costs will run from $3 to $7 a channel, with top prices on the only thing that anyone ever wants to see in real time: sports.

So buying just what you want a la carte might cost more than the current packages.

And in B.C. the service is PST-exempt only for the lowest cost package. So buyers of the second-to-lowest cost service will now pay more in taxes.

Converting the cord-nevers

The irony is that I suspect the CRTC is trying to preserve the audience for cable, which has become a service for the aged, by attracting millennials who have never bought cable packages with a low-priced entry option. About three-quarters of baby boomers buy cable, so it's on a trajectory to die when the boomers die -- and the first wave of boomers are entering their 72nd year.

Cord-cutting is on the rise among all demographics. Last year, HuffPo reported about 97,000 customers dropped their cable or satellite subscriptions in 2015 -- collectively, that's a city slightly larger than Nanaimo. (Though it's still less than one per cent of total subscribers.)

It's easy to point to growing competition for over-priced cable packages from streaming services like Netflix and options like video games, podcasts, and that retro favorite, the book.

But the real threat to the cable business isn't the cord-cutters, it's cord-nevers. People who just don't want what the cable people are selling.

The generation born around the time VCRs became popular in the early 1980s grew up accustomed to entertainment-on-demand. Their tastes were shaped by the freedom to play The Little Mermaid over and over again until the tape snapped.

They watched TV in their parents' cable-equipped homes. But they have never been subscribers themselves. Ad Age reported a U.S. study that predicts that, by 2025, half of consumers under the age of 32 won't pay for traditional cable subscriptions.

What we have here is a fundamental change in what people want, and there is no fighting that.

When it comes to TV-watching, that under-40 audience is not passive and not patient. They don't like the cable experience, in which you wait a week -- or months -- for the next episode and endure 17 minutes worth of commercials in a 60-minute show.

For them, cable is inconvenient, over-priced, and unnecessary. You could pay to watch about 20 TV series on iTunes or Google Play for the cost of a year's premium cable service, which delivers those shows at their convenience, not yours.

Bloated TV

And who has time for that much television? As the FX Network CEO John Landgraf told the Television Critics Association last summer, there is too much television and the audience is overwhelmed. There were about 280 shows five years ago, and there are now more than 400 shows.

We all sensed that. Fifteen years ago, everyone discussed new TV shows each fall. Then TV on DVD happened. We were all looking at different things at different times, and when someone found something good, she would tip the rest of us. We'd dutifully add it to a list.

I'm still making my way through that list. I finally got caught up on Friday Night Lights last summer.

And now there are zombie series. New generations are discovering cult hits of yesteryear like the Gilmore Girls and Full House on Netflix, a habit which is inspiring reboots.

Does this mean we all have to sit through seven seasons of Lorelei and Rory's charming banter, coupled with their distressingly sexist notions, so we're up to speed for the four new Gilmore Girls Netflix episodes coming this year?

What was once cable's advantage has become its flaw: It offers quantity over quality. It's a cheap, sugary tub of frozen ice milk instead of a half litre of premium gelato. That might make sense in large households, but the baby boomers' nests have long been empty. And the Gen Xers, now 52, are becoming grandparents.

Do they want or need cable packages if they're not sports fans?

Throw in the fact that Canada is becoming a land of singletons -- the last census shows 27.6 per cent of us now live alone -- and costly cable TV packages don't make much sense for anyone other than the cable companies.

The trick to selling any subscription service is to create a habit in the consumer and then up-sell. So I thought the CRTC was trying to create incentive for millennials to become first time cable buyers. They've hit 35, have young families, and might want that sort of omnibus entertainment package, particularly if they're sports watchers and want the pick-and-pay.

But given the begrudging way in which the cable providers have rolled this out, I'm guessing they really don't want to lure younger customers to cable. Then again, why would they?

As many a commentator has noted: the monopolies just keeping raising our Internet bills to dizzying heights to compensate for the cord-cutters.

So that leaves just one question. What will drive the plot of my imaginary TV series, Breaking Cable? Will it be outraged consumers lobbying to have the monopolies in this $63-billion-a-year industry broken up? Or will it be some social activists lobbying to have Internet access become a public right and a public utility, just liked paved roads, post offices, and libraries before it?

Either way, that's a series I’d like to see. (But only online.)

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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