Saturday, April 13, 2013

Not On Demand

When I opened our phone/cable/internet bill this month, I glanced as I usually do at the total. Month after month it is usually the same, packaged together as it is. But this month I noticed that the bottom line was a little more, $2.98 to be exact. Perhaps someone in the family downloaded an old episode of "Game of Thrones" or "Mad Men" as a refresher before the new season started. But no, this was not the case. Rather, we were being hit with a "surcharge" for sports programming. Put another way, I am paying for Alex  Rodriguez's contract.

According to a flyer in with the invoice, licensing fees charged to carry programming are going up. No surprise there, it's been happening for a while. And because the companies supplying the programming to the carriers bundle together stuff you want to watch with stuff you don't, you pay for both, like it or not. It's as if you went to a restaurant and every meal was all in: salad, appetizer, main course and dessert. You want the lamb, you gotta take the pea soup too. Even if you hate pea soup.

In the old model, that was generally OK. Assuming you wanted "cable" (and that's no longer an accurate moniker, as it's increasingly being delivered by fiber or satellite, but you get the idea), you picked the package that worked for you. For a certain price, it might be 50 channels; add a bit more, you got 70 and so on. But everyone paid the same for the smorgasbord that was transmitted, and picked from among those offerings. Depending on the package, you got some sports, some prime time, some national specialty franchises, even some Spanish programming and local access. If you wanted something special like the end cut of prime rib or a richer dessert, in the form of HBO or The Tennis Channel, you paid a little more. However, you could opt in or opt out of those extras as you wished.

But the landscape has shifted. These days, you don't need to have "cable" to watch programming; hell, you don't even need a TV. More and more shows are being consumed online and on computer screens every day; estimates are that 30% of all internet traffic in prime time is people streaming stuff from Netflix. Add in those viewing on tablets and mobile phones while on trains and planes, in coffee shops and in bed, and the traditional image of a viewer settling down at 8PM in a comfy chair to watch a 60 minute prime time drama is a quaint anachronism. The couch potato has been mashed.

With one exception, that is: sports. The live game, be it the big three of football, baseball or hockey, or any of the myriad of other professional and high level contests, is the killer app of viewing. The very fact that it's live is what makes it compelling. With the exception of a small group of diehard fans, most people want to watch it when it's happening, talk about it when it's over and that's the end of it. No binge, delayed, Tivo'ed, DVR'ed, boxed set, director's cut with special DVD commentary will do.  

I get it. And so if the economics of the system have changed so that you want to charge me for that privilege, have at it. Package it however you like. The Yankees charge $29 a year to get every game on your computer. I can get an NBA League Pass for $49 for season and watch hoops till I drop. Fine. I ask just one thing: let me be the judge of whether I think it's worth it or not. Instead, what you've done is hit me up for something I don't want, whether I want it or not. To spin a phrase, it's entertainment without representation.

But I know it's not going to stop. And so if you want me to pay more for sports, like owning stock in a company, at least give me a chance to speak my piece. I'll give you your $2.98, but here's my price: no more grunting in tennis. Change the blue lines in hockey to yellow. And like baseball, make football and basketball coaches wear the team uniform: it'll up the entertainment value when it's a blowout.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes watching sports now and again, but doesn't care who wins. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

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