Last week, we cancelled our cable TV service. In one fell swoop, we went from 60 to 0. No more DVR, HBO in HD, nor movies-on-demand. Also gone: the extraneous 700 other channels that I never looked at. For the first time since I was a college student, I wasn’t tethered to a coaxial connection.
I told Comcast, no hard feelings. We kept their broadband and voice services. I said, we needed more “breathing room” so I could work on my book (presently entitled Trust Me: How to Tell Stories in a Credibility-Starved World).
I was being truthful. That said, that I’m also saving $1000 a year. I’m ingesting content specific to my interests (streaming Hulu and Netflix through my Playstation 3). And I’m putting the savings to media that matters most to me: public radio (KUOW, KEXP), the Seattle Times Sunday paper, and a dead-tree subscription to the Wall Street Journal.
Thanks to three recent articles in that same Wall Street Journal, I now also believe there’s a higher purpose to this decentralization of my media choices. Because once again, large institutions with a vested interest in maintaining their power aren’t too pleased that people like me are making such choices.
Fortuitously, my colleague Kathy Gill commented on two of those Journal articles in Flip The Media posts immediately preceding this one. I’ve linked to her thoughts, and added my own here:
Rupert Murdoch’s op-ed: He had me at”the future of journalism is more promising than ever.” I also agreed with him that advertising could no longer sustain news. But then he called for further media deregulation that would allow for cross-ownership between broadcast and newspapers. I firmly believe that it was deregulation in the 1980’s that kick-started journalism’s sad demise, producing a wasteland of one-newspaper towns and conglomerate-controlled broadcasters (I used to work for one of those broadcasters). That’s when Americans began to lose faith in journalism. This would only make it worse for us as citizens, and make him richer as a media titan.
Publishers announcing that they would delay the issuance of e-books: As a Kindle owner, I found this artificial hold-back to be just a tad offensive, and yet more proof of the backwards-thinking publishing industry. It’s clear there’s a power struggle between publishers and retailers like Amazon. But from my vantage point, I benefit. I read more books, because I have more access to them. “Industry preservation” like this is akin to medieval monks transcribing even slower as if it would somehow impede the printing press revolution. These once powerful media institutions are losing control of how they manage content, and they don’t like it. At all.
And then I spied this article this morning: The Rabbit-Ear Wars, which contemplates the sale of the freely available broadcast network spectrum to mobile providers. Danger! I’m already well aware that I’m one of a growing minority who have canceled cable to take advantage of streaming media. This is of concern to cable companies, as well as cable providers. And it’s one reason (in addition to the lucrative cable fees) why Comcast wants control of NBC. At some point, they’re going to find a way to seal this loophole and start charging broadband users for access to sites such as Hulu. Fine. It’s their property, as owners of NBC Universal, they’re now content creators, they’re entitled. But in a backhanded way, it also limits the use of my internet service — especially because they’re one of the few broadband providers in the country. What if they also start arguing that my I’m using too much bandwidth by accessing other multimedia sites too often?:
[T]he move means Comcast will control every step of the system from content creation to delivery, and could easily begin preventing customers from accessing competing content or charging them more to do so than they would normally as a sort of a penalty. (Comcast-NBC Merger and Importance of Net Neutrality)
And now, extrapolating from the Rabbit Ears article, there’s now a chance that the only way to get basic network content would be through some sort of Comcast-like provider pipeline, diverting even more money and control their way. I just paid $10 for a set of rabbit ears that pulls in 13 basic channels in pristine high-definition — for free. I just have to sit through the commercials — as we all once did before the advent of Hulu, iTunes, Tivo, and even VCR’s. I’ll accept that trade-off
These recent developments have me deeply concerned that the brave new world that we celebrate in our graduate communications program — of media diversity and democratization thanks to the networked age — is illusory. Now that powerful interests have woken up to the fact that they have much to lose in this new ecosystem, they’ll pull whatever strings necessary to regain control.