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Breaking the Cable Company's Bundles

By Rob Pegoraro
Friday, April 3, 2009 7:02 AM

Remember those simpler, happier days when you could summarize your television viewing as "57 channels and nothing on"?

If you don't, no need to worry -- there's probably a documentary about it airing on one of the three history-themed channels your TV provider just added to your service.

Usually, choice is good and more choice is better. But the subscription-TV business seems determined to push this idea to an absurd extreme. As providers add ever more channels to their standard service packages -- a feat cable operators touted last week at their annual convention, the Cable Show, in the District -- their monthly rates keep rising and the relevance of these bundles keeps dropping.

Put another way, while we've never paid less per channel we receive, we've also never had to pay for so much stuff we don't watch.

Consider the history of three major Washington area service providers over the past two years -- one cable, one satellite and one fiber optic.

Comcast's Digital Starter plan has gone from $51.10 a month for 104 channels to $55.05 a month for 139 channels. DirecTV's Choice plan has grown from $49.99 a month for 90 channels to $55.99 a month for 112 channels. And at Verizon, the Premier plan, at $42.99 a month for about 200 channels, has been replaced by a $47.99 Essentials plan that brings access to a ridiculous 305 channels.

(These numbers don't count music-only feeds or video-on-demand offerings and assume that a viewer lives in the District or, in Verizon's case, Arlington.)

The price increases alone are obnoxious enough when you consider how Internet connections and wireless phone services have been able to improve their capabilities without jacking up their rates.

You can, however, do something about cable and satellite price hikes. Many people sign up for discounted bundles of Internet, TV and phone service (though that ties you even more tightly to one company). You can switch to a new company to take advantage of the discounts it uses to lure new subscribers (at the cost of being locked into a one- or two-year contract).

Or, perhaps best of all, you can call your current provider and bargain for a lower rate. Readers and neighbors alike have reported this works quite well -- if you don't mind having to treat your TV transactions like used-car purchases.

But you can't do anything about other problems with the TV industry's more-is-always-better strategy.

One, the marginal benefit of each extra channel gets awfully thin when you can't manufacture any more hours in which you might consume this cornucopia of content.

Two, enjoying the 10 or 20 channels you do regularly watch gets difficult when you have to navigate among 100, 200 or 300 others on your TV's screen. The traditional grid listing of TV channels and the standard remote-control keypad start to break down -- especially in the slow, ugly and cluttered interfaces of the average cable or satellite box.

Three, there's the fundamental irritation of having to subsidize ever more things you don't like. Why is it my job to keep QVC in business when there's this thing called the Internet that handles home shopping so much better? Why should my wife and I, graduates of Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East schools, have to chip in for the Big Ten Network?

I'd call these bundles a corporate-run welfare program, but that would not be fair: You have to get off welfare at some point.

Meanwhile, the Web keeps teaching us that we don't have to buy culture in bulk. You don't need to buy an entire album when Amazon and iTunes will sell you only the songs you want. You can watch only the TV shows you enjoy at a site like Hulu.

Some TV providers have taken baby steps to keep things in check. For example, Comcast has refused the entreaties of sports networks for carriage on its standard bundles, instead reserving such newcomers as the NFL Network and the Fox Soccer Channel to a $5-a-month optional add-on.

The satellite provider Dish Network lets viewers save $5 a month by opting out of the local channels they can watch off the air for free. It also offers a $29.99 bundle of only high-definition channels.

But the industry as a whole needs to get over the bundling concept. There's no longer any technological requirement for these huge packages. The digital systems of all the major services, unlike analog cable boxes, are perfectly capable of providing a customized feed and billing users appropriately.

At some point, one of these companies will realize that. In the meantime, you have the option of building your own bundle: Cancel your TV service, then combine over-the-air digital TV, downloads from iTunes and Amazon, free streaming from Hulu and the networks' Web sites, and DVD rentals from Netflix and others.

That's not an easy switch, especially if you're uncomfortable with plugging a computer into a TV. But paying more every year for the TV industry's broken business model isn't getting any easier, either.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.http://

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