Paying for It

I’m still turning over some of the questions I’ve been considering lately about new distribution models for movies and television, in particular some of the “long tail” arguments that have suggested that affordable broadband will create a “celestial jukebox” that will provide us with essentially unlimited choice and convenience at a reasonable price. Although there is relatively widespread adoption of watching TV and movies online, I think it’s worth considering how these changes might face certain forms of resistance among consumers who–consciously or not–cannot habituate themselves to new models of distribution (even if we achieve the FCC’s goal of providing broadband access to 90% of US homes by 2020).

Max Fisher, writing for The Atlantic, offers the provocative claim that “cable television is dead,” arguing that, in essence, cable TV requires us to pay for a show twice, first by asking us to pay monthly subscriptions and second by forcing us to watch advertisements during commercial breaks (assuming we don’t have a TiVo).  Arguably, we also pay for that show a third time due to the kinds of product placement and in-show promotion practices common to reality TV and similar genres.  Fisher goes on to posit that Hulu and iTunes, with their two basic approaches of offering either ad-supported or subscription-based programming will offer us a healthy alternative to the Comcastic middle man.  Such an approach, I’d argue, would potentially threaten to provide us with less access and choice, not more.  How likely, for example, are users going to be to browse a show if they are forced to pay for the whole hour?  My suspicion is that such an approach might lead to at least some degree of backlash and might drive users to less painful forms of free content.

Interestingly, Fisher goes on to argue that “networks, no longer forced to fill exactly 24 hours of daily programming, would act more like movie studios, releasing as many or as few titles as they wished. High-quality shows would prosper as networks dropped the unneeded filler.”  Of course, this is somewhat wishful thinking, as highly-rated shows don’t always correspond to shows that are critically-acclaimed.  Would a niche show like Mad Men that commands the attention of a small, but select audience, be able to compete in a purely digital marketplace? I’m not sure.

But in following some of the discussion of Blockbuster, Redbox, and 3-D projection, I’m beginning to see a mild backlash around the high cost of entertainment.  One version of this is Dawn Taylor’s Cinematical column, in which she discusses her reaction to the announcement by Regal, Cinemark, and AMC that they plan to increase ticket prices for 3-D movies by as much as 25%.  Taylor points out that these prices mean that a family of four could pay over $50 to go see Clash of the Titans on a Friday night.  Is that something that most families can afford on a weekly–or even monthly–basis?  Taylor’s answer is pretty blunt: “gambling that spectacle alone will keep people coming to theaters is just plain stupid. Spectacle gets old awfully quickly; 3-D will stop being a shiny new toy in a year or so, and people will still be struggling to pay their bills.”  Although I think she overstates her case somewhat, the perception that movies are inaccessible to the working class is a powerful one, given the history of movies as an “egalitarian” medium (note a similar post from the Louisville Mojo blog).

Obviously Redbox is, to some extent, part of the backlash, with its dollar-per-night rentals.  But even here, many video consumers seem frustrated by the choices they have available.  We are beginning to see stories about small towns where the only access to DVD rentals, for some customers, is via a Redbox kiosk or through Netflix.  Stories such as this report from Pasco, Washington, and this one from Ashland, Ohio, complicate (at least from my perspective) some of the more celebratory accounts of a digital revolution.  But at least the digital revolution seems to be offering new opportunities for enterprising students who can earn $26,000 a year from Warner Bros. for snitching on DVD pirates.


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  4. Mike Everleth Said,

    April 3, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

    I didn’t read Fisher’s whole article because I thought the intro argument was absolutely ridiculous. Cut out the cable middle man on the Internet? Well, who the hell do most people pay to get the Internet into their homes? You gotta pay somebody! You gotta pay cable, a dsl provider, a satellite company: Some middle man is going to have to get paid for the delivery.

  5. Chuck Said,

    April 3, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    Yeah, I should have criticized him on that point, too. I don’t know why I didn’t. It’s mostly a ridiculous argument, but the resentment over entertainment costs is real.

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