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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

PBS Offers Guide to Cord-Cutting and Defense of Piracy

Posted By on Tue, May 14, 2013 at 12:32 PM


You want to cut the cable cord, but you aren't clear on how to go about it. You aren't much of a gadget geek, you don't regularly follow tech news, and -- while you might have a Netflix account -- you might not know much about the other alternatives and how they compare: Hulu, Blockbuster, Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc.

And you are even less familiar with the hardware that ports Internet video to your TV: Apple TV, Roku, Boxee, and various game consoles and smart TVs. You could do your research online and it wouldn't be very hard, but if you want to get all the most basic information in one place, another option is pay $2.99 to download the e-book "Your Guide to Cutting the Cord to Cable TV" by Mark Glaser of PBS Mediashift.

If you watch TV with any regularity, cutting the cord isn't as simple as just ... cutting the cord. Switching over to Internet-distributed television can be "complex and maddening," Glaser notes. The guide is somewhat clumsily written in spots, and it's lacking in details here and there, but it can serve as a handy guide for finding out more about all the various options. Sadly, though, a big chunk of it is devoted to witless technological triumphalism, including a defense of digital piracy.

There is a big debate over whether cord-cutting is a big phenomenon, or whether it's naturally limited to a small portion of the viewing public. Glaser cites a study from a year ago that found that 4.5 percent of households had no pay-TV of any kind (cable, satellite, or fiber-optic). That's not huge, but it's 23 percent higher than it had been the year before. The argument that cord-cutting isn't all that popular comes mainly from the pay-TV companies. We don't yet know how big the phenomenon is going to get, but it's real, and it's growing.

That's mainly because of the cost. The average price of a monthly cable subscription is anywhere from $70 to $100. Some cable companies have lowered prices by a pittance over the past couple of years (in response to cord-cutting), but rates for satellite and fiber-optic services have gone up, raising the overall pay-TV average. There's no real competition in pay-TV markets, so for now, there's no pressure on prices other than cord-cutting. This isn't yet an existential problem for pay-TV companies, but it easily could become one. Glaser estimates that about 95 percent of what most people watch through pay-TV is also available through other means, including the Internet and broadcast TV. The remaining 5 percent is crucial, however: it includes premium, cable-only programming like that offered by HBO, sports, and live events like awards shows and most breaking news. If you pay for cable or satellite, much of your bill goes to pay for sports programming, whether you watch sports or not. The entrenched relationships between sports programmers and pay-TV companies mean that pay-TV will maintain much of its power for some time to come.

The pay-TV industry most likely won't suddenly implode; rather, it is being chipped away at, bit by bit, as programming continues to move online. The big question now is whether cable-only networks like HBO will make their programming available online to people who aren't pay-TV subscribers (HBO subscribers, for example, can watch streaming video from that network on the Internet ; others cannot) . There have been hints that this is being considered. If it happens, it will mark a major turning point.

The guide describes the various hardware options and online services (a bit scantily in some cases) and offers a few real-world examples of various home setups (all of them written by people who, like Glaser, live in the Bay Area). That takes up about 40 percent of the 161-page book. The rest is given over to essays collected under the heading "Deeper Thoughts." Some of the thoughts here are helpful, or at least informative: for instance, you learn why sports and pay-TV are so (seemingly) inextricably linked.

Some of the other thoughts in this section are not very deep at all, and in fact are downright inane. PBS Mediawatch is a fairly reliable source (among many) of "old is bad, new is good" thinking, where technological innovation is often portrayed as inherently good. So it's no surprise that the guide is given over to that worldview. One chapter, "The Cord Cutters Manifesto" is just that: a rather predictable jeremiad against the pay-TV paradigm, and why it's a good thing that it's being smashed (few outside of the pay-TV industry would disagree).

The worst part of this section presents the personal musings of some dude named Dan Reimold, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa and keeper of the blog College Media Matters. His long chapter, "Lessons from a Cord-Cutter," which takes up about 15 percent of the book, relies on the assumption that people will find him and his TV-watching habits to be utterly fascinating. They aren't. Mostly, they're boring. But some of them are awful. One of his "lessons" is: "From a content perspective, there are competing cord-cutting philosophies." One of those "philosophies" turns out to be simple amorality. "There is the legal way, and the other way," he writes. "Netflix, iTunes, Blockbuster, Hulu, and PlayOn are lovely services. I have never used any of them. Instead, some of us revel in the freedom and free price tag of questionably legal downloading services and streaming sites."

Note the sudden shift there from the first-person singular ("I") to the first-person plural ("some of us"), revealing that while he's willing to own up to his own skeevy behavior, he's not totally comfortable with it, and so he feels better doing so as part of a crowd -- or as he might see it, a movement. Note further the silly political terms in which he puts his desire to get free shit no matter who it hurts: "freedom." Give me a break. What he calls "questionably legal" isn't questionable at all: He illicitly downloads copyrighted material. Finally, how does he know how "lovely" those legitimate services are when he's "never used any of them?" It's a bit surprising that the PBS imprimatur is stamped on this rather puerile apologia for amoral behavior. Not that digital piracy isn't a big part of the cord-cutting story, of course, but it's presented here as if it were just another option, no better or worse than subscribing to Netflix.

The guide would have been much better if it had hewed closer to its stated mission of helping people navigate the ridiculously confusing and fast-changing world of television. If it had focused more on that in the relatively scant early chapters, and less on the "deeper" stuff in the later ones, it would be easy to recommend.

As it is, I can say only that the early chapters can serve as a handy jumping-off point for further research. It's not required, since all the information it contains is easily found online. But at $2.99, it might be worth downloading just to save some of the work of searching for info.

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Dan Mitchell


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