Screwing cable TV one show at a time

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on September 2, 2013

From The News Desk

For today's TV viewer, finding what you want to watch can be maddeningly complicated.

Take, for example, the US Open Tennis TV schedule. It's broadcast on ESPN2 for most of the week, but also shown on the Tennis Channel at certain times and over CBS on weekend days. ESPN2 is in almost 100 million homes but the Tennis Channel is a niche channel and reaches only about 34 million homes across the country. CBS is a broadcaster and available to virtually anyone with a TV, except it's at war with Time Warner Cable, the nation's second largest cable operator, and not available to more than 3 million of its 11 million subscribers, of which I am one.

All right, so what do I do if I want to watch a match? I could tune into ESPN2 during the week and since I subscribe to the Tennis Channel watch matches live and replays at night. But CBS is blacked out in New York for Time Warner customers, so on the weekends I could tune into Aereo, which I have on my Roku box. (I subscribed only recently because I wanted to ensure I could watch the US Open semifinals and finals on CBS, Time Warner be damned.) The thing is, over the Labor Day Weekend I was upstate at my mother-in-law's house. She has Comcast as her cable provider and I'd set her up with an AppleTV. But she doesn't subscribe to the Tennis Channel, although she does receive CBS and ESPN2.

Yet there's another option. I could stream live video from the US Open app on my iPhone using Apple Airplay over her AppleTV, which is better than watching it on CBS. That's because I can choose one of five matches being played simultaneously -- in Ashe Stadium, Louis Armstrong, Grandstand, Court 17 and Court 11. Why watch the match CBS gives me when I can see the one I want, and flip back and forth at will? There's another benefit: no commercials. But if I were home, I'd be out of luck because I can't stream video from live events over my Roku box (although it does have limited streaming capability).

Television content is becoming more balkanized, and viewers who want to watch favorite shows or events are forced to subscribe to a wide palette of content providers. It's made evermore complicated because some of these companies don't play nice with one another.

My wife, for example, became enamored with a show called "The Good Wife," which is only available, as far as I know, over Amazon Instant Video (with the first three seasons free to Prime members like me.) We could binge watch it over our Roku box and when we were traveling this summer watched it over my laptop or iPad, sitting in bed with headphones plugged into a splitter (so not to disturb our kids sleeping in the room next door). Amazon video is not available over AppleTV, however, which was one reason I opted for a Roku. But Roku messes me up for the US Open because I can't stream live video from the app.

Amazon and Apple are ugly rivals, and hate each other so much that one day, as I rummaged around for a charger for my daughters' iPods, I found a cable but not the power cube. It's just a simple USB connection, so I popped off the one on my kid's Kindle charger, connected it to the Apple cable and plugged it into the wall. But it wouldn't work, rejecting it as if it were a virus.

The balkanized state of TV content will only get more fragmented, as each fiefdom continues to strike its own content deals. Netflix used to have a massive trove of movies but now it's a pale imitation as these deals ended and it didn't negotiate new agreements. Instead, Netflix is imitating HBO and make its mark through original programming like "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development." On the other hand, Amazon wants to become what Netflix was, and has been increasing its stash of content, offering some of it free to Prime members.

That works for me, since I have a Roku box, but not for my mother-in-law with an AppleTV. Aereo is grabbing broadcaster content from CBS, NBC, and ABC over the airwaves with an antennae and allowing cable customers to record shows at will and skip commercials. It's a lot like a cable systems DVR, except Time Warner, in my case, only allows you limited storage, and it's easy to fill up it up with shows and movies. Hulu has a lot of TV shows but lacks old sitcoms and dramas. Other smaller content providers cover dribs and drabs of other content.

CableTV counts hundreds, if not more than a thousand channels, although many are repeated, and it made finding what you want a challenge. With all of this content spread out over multiple providers available over multiple distribution systems, it's even more complicated.

Over the years, there's been a battle over which companies could control the American living room. Until recently cable companies were the victors because they controlled not only distribution of the content viewers but also the last mile of pipeline into each home. But they have been providing the seeds of their own destruction by providing Internet service, which is helping subscribers cut the cord.

Of course, few would be sorry to see cable TV providers shrink into oblivion. They are about as popular as music industry execs -- middlemen who sit between the artists and listeners while grabbing fistfuls of cash because they controlled access to the content. They bundle programming, forcing us to subscribe to channels we don't want. That's not also not unlike the record industry, which for years feasted on consumers buying whole albums. Suddenly, after digital downloads became widely available, it turned out all they wanted were one or two songs. The rising price of cable TV service and its restrictive bundling practices has caught the attention of Congress. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has proposed legislation to allow consumers to opt out of bundling packages and choose only the channels they want.

Nevertheless, the content floodgates are open, and while it's a confusing time to be a viewer, we also have access to more programming than ever.

You just have to know where to look.

Image via Flickr.