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To save pay TV, give us more VOD

Molly Wood Nov 5, 2015

Dear television: I haven’t cut the cord, but I’m seriously thinking about it. So if you want to keep me as a subscriber, here’s a simple suggestion: I want my Video On Demand. 

Let’s back up. This week, there was yet another round of hand-wringing about the future of television.

Time Warner lowered its 2016 outlook Wednesday, partly because it plans to invest heavily in nontraditional, streaming TV products. Fox reported lower earnings, thanks in part to lower ratings on its broadcast network, and lower overall ad revenue from TV. CBS reported strong earnings, but ad sales were down compared to last year and the network said its splashy new “Star Trek” reboot was designed for its subscription package, CBS All Access.

Most of those reports reflected one thing: consumers want more options for watching TV, and they want to watch it when it works for them. None of this is new, and none of it has to be the death knell for programming or pay TV.

Consider one noteworthy tidbit in Time Warner’s earnings call: the company said it would consider delaying licensing shows to Netflix and Hulu, in an effort to keep its cable subscribers locked in to watching TV on Time Warner.

Does that mean more video on demand? Because if pay TV and broadcasters are both worried about the same outcome, that’s the direction they should be going. They should amass vast libraries of on-demand video to make pay TV the kind of one-stop convenience that consumers love to pay for.

Even as VOD offerings have improved, they’re still a patchwork of byzantine licensing and baffling omissions that leave people like me paying extra for a la carte services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu.

That’s annoying and inconvenient. Broadcasters are making the problem worse by parceling out exclusive licensing agreements, even as they plot their own exclusive subscription offerings.

And the day is coming when the most dire predictions about a la carte, streaming TV come true: it’s more expensive and less convenient than cable.

Digital subscriptions are like a drip of water that will eventually wear a hole in a stone. If you already pay for Netflix, Amazon, and maybe Hulu, too (not to mention all your other digital content), the idea of a standalone subscription to HBO Now, plus another $6 a month for CBS All Access and whatever Time Warner is planning to introduce … well, you can see how the old subscription muscle gets a little worn out.

But you know what is easy and convenient and already embedded in most people’s homes? Pay TV.

Yes, cord cutting is scary, but right now it represents a tiny (if growing) faction of the pay TV user base. The truth is, we want television, but we want it with options. We want to record it to watch at our leisure. We want to skip commercials sometimes, but not always. We want shows and movies on-demand within reasonable windows, and we want to binge-watch episodes of favorite shows without friction.

If Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner had been looking to the future when Netflix started experimenting with instant streaming, they’d have lobbied hard for more VOD, making pay TV an irresistible combination of live TV and vast libraries of on-demand shows and movies.

Now, I still have to piece together my viewing experience — supplementing my expensive satellite TV subscription with Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime — to get everything I want.

I had to turn to Hulu to watch the second episode of this year’s new NBC show “Blindspot,” because my DVR failed to record it (or I failed to set it up, who knows?). Or I could have paid $2 to buy the episode on Amazon.

Why couldn’t I just watch it on-demand? And why would I want to watch a show on my laptop (assuming I don’t have a Chromecast or another set-top box for streaming) rather than on my giant TV? That “solution” should be DirecTV or Comcast or Time Warner’s worst nightmare. The fact that NBC is licensing that episode to Hulu and not DirecTV is a failure on DirecTV’s part.

Here’s another example. I binge-watched the first two seasons of “Strike Back,” which airs, incidentally, on Cinemax — a premium channel for which I pay extra. But when I got to season 3, the first episode of the season wasn’t available on-demand. Every other episode had recorded onto my DirecTV DVR, using a cool feature that lets you record and store on-demand programs. Isn’t that smart?

Unless, of course, some bizarre twist of licensing excludes the first episode of the season, which, in an even more bizarre twist, was available on-demand from DirecTV on the Web or via its mobile app, but not on TV. There’s no universe where that makes any sense.

To watch it, I found myself once again sitting in front of my 65” HDTV, watching on my laptop.

That’s just silly. And if I’m going to all that trouble, why bother with the pay TV in the first place? It might be cheaper in the long run and only slightly more of a hassle to cobble together the same collection of streaming services I use now.

But I’d rather pay once for everything I want to watch. If Netflix or Amazon want to entice me with their original shows, I might be interested. But can you imagine a world where Comcast strikes a deal with Amazon to run “Transparent” on-demand?

It’s time for pay TV to flip the script. I don’t know why broadcasters aren’t licensing on-demand content to cable or satellite providers, or why they insist on segmenting delivery by device.

I only know that broadcasters and pay TV providers have an opportunity to use their scale, their position in people’s homes and the technology that’s made streaming upstarts successful, and crush the cord-cutting uprising with sheer convenience.

Forrester Research estimates some 15 percent of TV subscribers will cut the cord by 2025. If I could pay once to watch everything I want on my nice big TV with just one remote, I might not be one of those people.


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