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Killing the cable bundle won't destroy television

Jared Newman | March 27, 2015
The cable apologists have been out in full force these last few weeks, which is as good a sign as any that the bloated TV bundle is in trouble.

The cable apologists have been out in full force these last few weeks, which is as good a sign as any that the bloated TV bundle is in trouble.

Their latest line of defense goes beyond the bogus claim that cord-cutting won't save you money. (I debunked that one a couple weeks ago.) Now they're saying that a mass defection from cable will ruin television as we know it. Don't you dare demand a la carte options, they say, because getting your wish would be the death of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. 

Here's Bloomberg View's Megan McArdle, encapsulating this pro-bundle argument:

Yes, the unbundlers will say, but I want to focus my money on the channels I love, making the kind of content I want to watch. This strikes me as even more wrong than the argument from price.

Here's the thing: The folks making this argument are almost always talking about relatively small niche shows, from The Wire to Mad Men. These are high-quality shows that networks produce in order to make themselves a more valuable proposition to the cable carriers — shows that will make loyal fans demand their carrier offer your network. But the audiences for these shows are not large. And unbundling would actually put up a barrier to getting more viewers, because now instead of persuading folks to give you an hour on Sunday night, you'd first have to persuade them to subscribe to your channel, then persuade them to watch the show.

First of all, I can count on one hand the number of regular cable networks that supposedly produce all these "high-quality" shows. If we go by Emmy nominees for comedy and drama from the last three years, FX and AMC are the only standard cable networks that produced anything worth a nod. The other nominees hail from paid premium networks (HBO, Showtime), subscription streaming services (Netflix), and broadcast networks you can get with an antenna (CBS, NBC, PBS). Most regular cable networks are busy churning out low-cost reality shows.

McArdle and other cable bundle proponents don't even bother mentioning Netflix, even though it has produced award-winning shows in House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, and plans to launch eight new original series this year. Netflix proves that being part of a bloated cable bundle isn't a prerequisite for high-quality, original programming, Same goes for Amazon, whose new series Transparenttook home two major Golden Globe awards this year.

These shows aren't being ignored by subscribers, either. They're actually doing quite well, as Netflix pointed out in a recent investor letter. "Our originals cost us less money, relative to our viewing metrics, than most of our licensed content, much of which is well known and created by the top studios," the company told investors in January.

 

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