Embracing unlimited content, cable TV edition

It is often stated that bundled cable is a poor value to customers, because it forces them to pay for channels they don’t, or won’t, watch. (Analyst Horace Deidu recently suggested that the entire cable television industry is a historical anomaly.) Given the sheer density of options that shows up when one hits the Guide button on a cable box’s remote, this is an easy opinion with which to concur. HBO Now and the rumored Apple TV service reinforce it.

I’ve never really subscribed to that perspective, though. I like having the myriad options at my disposal. And part of that is because, with so much programming now available, I never know where I’m going to turn next. Keeping my options open turns out to be extremely beneficial.

I flipped through the channel lineup of my cable provider, Time Warner Cable, to quantify which of the stations I’ve tuned into in recent memory, including my kids’ shows. My tally:

5 – broadcast networks
29 – basic cable channels
7 – kids’ channels
9 – sports and news channels
11 – premium and movie channels (excluding pay-per-view)

Fairly recent studies have claimed the average American watches 34 hours of TV each week across just 17 channels. My cable boxes are probably on for 20-25 hours, including weekend ballgames and evenings when the TV is on in the background. Yet we’ve managed to tune into 61 different stations with our viewing habits, perhaps more.

Part of that is because today’s channels have done a very good job of finding niche content and making it discoverable. It would be hard for a single network to identify, produce and broadcast “Mad Men,” “Pawn Stars,” “Episodes,” “Paw Patrol” and “Flip or Flop,” let alone figure out the proper market segment to target with that slate. Yet I have found my way to all of those shows (well, “Paw Patrol” wasn’t exactly my idea, but still). On TV, the paradox of choice is instead a boon to casual viewers like me.

Should the cable industry move toward pay-per-stream pricing, the serendipity of discovery will undoubtedly drop. Anecdotally, I can confirm this with my own viewing habits: I resisted a Showtime subscription for years, only opting in when I had multiple shows I wanted to watch. Meanwhile, I’ve never had a Netflix account, despite the provider’s increasing array of what I hear are great shows. I haven’t gotten around to signing up, and without an Internet-enabled TV in my bedroom, I remain rather content to flip to “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” reruns on nights when not much else is on.

Ironically, cable television is being disrupted and fragmented at the same time as its media counterpart, the music industry, is consolidating around flat-rate pricing. Of course, if cable TV cost the same $10/month that Spotify and Rdio do, the conversation around television would be a lot different.

Costs aside, all those stations streaming into my home, non-stop, prove useful and enjoyable. The business model that’s about to be disrupted is not broken; it’s simply overpriced and unsexy. And while I have my Amazon Prime streaming video and my Apple TV in the living room, I’ll be keeping my cable TV subscription for awhile yet.