If you’ve ever grumbled about paying for all those cable or satellite channels when you only watch a handful, last week brought good and potentially big news. Television networks HBO and CBS separately announced that they plan to offer an online version of their products that would be available to consumers even if they didn’t subscribe to cable or satellite.
CBS and other major networks already offer such a product, of course. It’s the over-the-air (OTA) signal that’s free to anyone who can capture it with a TV antenna. But for those consumers who want more than the Big 4 networks, the announcements signal a potential seismic shift in how we watch and pay for our TV.
Until now, if you wanted to watch non-OTA networks, you had to purchase them along with dozens to hundreds of other channels as part of that cable or satellite subscription. If you only wanted HBO, ESPN and a few others, too bad. It was all or nothing.
TV providers and networks liked it this way because the subscription bundle approach made them gobs of money. They didn’t want to cannibalize their sales by offering a new product that would cause consumers to cancel the cable subscriptions that produced all that revenue.
So why are at least two networks changing their mind? It’s not an act of Congress – although lawmakers did occasionally grumble (perhaps after opening their own bills) about the cable/satellite subscription model.
What happened was technology and the free market. Specifically, Netflix. The video rental company capitalized on the availability of faster Internet download speeds to sell access to thousands of movies and television shows shortly after they appeared in theaters and on networks. Netflix offered some successful original programming, too.
Most importantly, Netflix also made gobs of money doing it. That’s apparently either given networks the courage to dabble in the online model, or fear that they might be left behind as TV viewing habits continue to change.
HBO has yet to offer a subscription price for its network, and there’s no word yet if other networks will follow. (Hello, ESPN?) But choice seems to be on the way for consumers, who’ve convinced at least a couple networks to try giving them what they want, without a lot of what they don’t.