Giving people more options is generally a good thing, and the announcement on Tuesday that Verizon would offer a couple dozen FiOS cable TV channels through a new Xbox Live app certainly isn’t a bad thing. But it’s also a reminder of all that we still lack when it comes to consuming what we want to consume, and not subsidizing piles of stuff we don’t.
The FiOS deal sounds sweet enough—watch live TV through your Xbox 360!—until you realize it’ll require you already have a Verizon FiOS subscription. In that sense, Verizon’s deal is like all the others from cable providers who offer their services through devices likes computers or laptops. What sounds wonderful in theory—the ability to watch live TV without a cable box—turns out to require the cable box after all, and a regular subscription to boot. Instead of supplanting cable boxes, your computing devices become adjuncts to an aging, increasingly old-school method for consuming digital content, not the independent pipelines for discrete digital content they’re capable of being…and that so many consumers seem to be looking for.
Underlying all of this: The balkanization of cable content, which seems as inevitable now as its print analogue did years ago. In the late 1990s, if my wife wanted to read the daily comic strips, she had to buy a newspaper and pluck that particular broadsheet from the “entertainment” section, either discarding the rest, recycling it, or marking it for campfire (or fireplace) kindling. Today, by contrast, she just visits a website like GoComics.com and shuffles through whatever’s on offer. She hasn’t leafed through (much less bought) a print newspaper in years.
That’s had an understandably disastrous impact on print and related media, which spent decades subsidizing “hard news” reporting and content with lighter (and more broadly appealing) fare. People bought newspapers for stuff in the entertainment or “living” sections or the tucked-inside coupons, but wound up paying for all the parts bypassed and of interest to much smaller numbers of readers. For better or worse, that’s the way it goes–you can’t force people to pay for content they don’t want when that content’s available unbundled elsewhere.
It’s been a question in my household and among friends for years: Why, in this era of Netflix and Hulu and YouTube and I-pay-for-what-I-want-and-nothing-else, don’t we have the option to purchase a subscription to just a handful of channels? What if all I care to watch is CNBC? AMC? The CW? The Learning Channel? The Food Network? Some combination of those, or any of the hundreds of others?
The practice of bundling is under fire, and has been for years. True, à la carte pricing would cost more on a per-channel basis (and relatively speaking), but I’d gladly pay more per channel per month for one or two channels I’ll genuinely watch, instead of $60 or $80 or $100 a month for hundreds of channels I never will. And don’t forget the political “feedback” component: How many times have you wished to keep or cancel a channel because you wanted to send a message of one sort or another? Backed away from canceling because it meant canceling everything? This all or nothing business only works, in terms of justification, when there’s one way to access content. These days, serious Internet-driven alternatives pop up annually.
But okay, let’s leave the cable-bundling debate aside: There’s another reason to frown (granted, small frown) at the Xbox Live-Verizon FiOS deal. You have to be both a FiOS TV and Internet subscriber to access it, for starters–that much you’d expect. But you also have to be an Xbox Live Gold member. Gold tier membership costs $60 a year, or $5 a month. You’re essentially paying extra, if you’re not already a Gold subscriber, for the “privilege” of not having to tap the “input” button on your TV remote when you want to switch from game-playing to TV-watching (assuming your Xbox 360 connects to a TV that’s already cable-wired, that is—for those planning to use the 360 with a TV that’s not connected, it’s probably a more justifiable perk).
Microsoft’s been sticking stuff like this behind the pay-wall for years now, and customers seem happy enough to pay the bill, but when you look at the revenue model, it starts to feel less like a “value” thing and more like gratuity. Microsoft rival Sony offers comparable features through its PlayStation Network at no cost, taking care to place original content (and not third-party front-ends) behind its PlayStation Plus pay-wall. Industry pundits have nothing but plaudits for Microsoft’s monetization skills, and I’ll tip my hat to Microsoft’s clear success here, but as long as less expensive alternatives exist from serious contenders, you’ll never convince astute consumers that paying more for “the same” equals more.
In a more ideal world, Verizon would allow customers to subscribe to content on a channel-by-channel basis (or at least in smaller, demographically informed bundles) directly over the Internet–no need for cable boxes or secondary subscriptions. And in that world, Microsoft would either enhance its tie-in service in a way that actually justified the Gold membership markup, or offer it outside Xbox Live’s pay-wall.
[This post republished from Techland.