Thursday, June 25, 2009

Too Much TV?

Mail is mostly advertising, and the volume of mail has fallen pretty much in line with the fortunes of the advertising industry. One category of mail I receive has not fallen off, though. Television services continue to send me letters, flyers, and post cards, trying to persuade me to spend my money on a cable or satellite service. This tiny corner of the national economy is providing me with more than 5 percent of my mail.

When a business category starts to be over-advertised like this, it’s usually a sign of trouble on the way. The industry is overbuilt — because the prices it is charging are so high that there seems to be a big profit available. But then competition, saturation, and customer fatigue take their toll, and the industry has to cut back, sometimes in a dramatic shakeout. It has happened to “long distance” telephone service, music subscription services, ISPs, cell phone handsets, beer, real estate, pickup trucks. It’s now hitting the banking business. And it will hit television before too long.

Television is losing customers, and it could minimize this by cutting prices and simplifying delivery. It is as if cable companies do not realize how high their prices are and how complicated their systems are to use. It is not something they will figure out by comparing themselves to the satellite TV providers.

Instead, they need to compare television to the Internet. Imagine this list of questions:

  • How many channels does your Internet get?
  • How do you keep track of your favorite shows on the Internet?
  • How do you record Internet shows so you can watch them later?

Questions like these are so clueless you can’t even answer them. The Internet is not subject to the arbitrary limitations that accompany television service. The real questions are not about the Internet, but about television:

  • Why does a cable service limit you to just a few channels, and force you to find them by number?
  • Why can’t a cable service keep track of shows for people?
  • Why does a cable service have to be limited to delivering programs just at scheduled times?

And of course, why does cable have to be so complicated and expensive? The TV industry’s very muted response to these questions tell me they don’t see the trouble coming. But trouble is coming. The post cards don’t lie.