Bloomberg via Getty Images
I think I need someone to explain something to me.
YouTube just announced its own TV distribution option, which is pretty straightforward and allows cord cutters to access various networks that other streaming options might not. It’s a big change for the operation, because YouTube’s whole raison d’être was to act as an alternative to regular television, but that’s not really the confusing part, because making money is making money, and offering people a chance to access certain programming under your auspices, and having them pay you for it, is generally a pretty sound business practice.
The new format allows for use of an unlimited, cloud-based DVR that lasts for up to nine months, and the ability to watch live programming on whichever device might be closest to you, wherever you might be, all for the rather affordable price of $35 per month for a 50-channel bundle. Sure, there are drawbacks, like how you can’t watch your local programming while out of town, it only offers access to live programming and not an online library of shows and movies, and it can’t operate without GPS enabled — also, as of now, it’s only available in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia, though there is the promise that more markets will open soon — but these seem like triflings in the grand scheme of things.
Additionally, while it is possible to watch the programming on your phone or tablet, it’s really designed to work with a Chromecast, or a television enabled with it, which, to my mind, makes it much more like traditional cable, but without a lot of the networks that make cable worthwhile.
No, all that stuff I get. I mean, you have to imagine that a multi-billion dollar company like YouTube would understand the landscape better than I do, so the move into more traditional broadcasting from its original mission of offering anything but probably makes sense, from a bottom line perspective, and it’s tough to argue with that.
Where I start to run into trouble is when I am told that the four major networks, ESPN, and several other cable outlets have all signed up to be a part of this. That’s the part that I simply don’t get.
CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox all have their own streaming services, as does ESPN. CBS’ All-Access costs $5.99 per month, whereas the others are ostensibly free, but come with a catch. NBC, ABC, and Fox, near as I can figure, require a cable provider to have proper access to each network’s shows, though it looks like ABC will let you watch something for free a week after it was first broadcast (though shows will expire after a certain number of weeks, meaning you won’t get unlimited amounts of time to view them). Fox is similar, but will let you watch for free without a provider, though it only offers five episodes for viewing at any given time. The rest are locked away, and can only be viewed if you have cable. ESPN, meanwhile, lets you watch anything at any time. They’re just giving it all away.
Now, CBS All-Access does something none of the others yet do, which is to offer original programming not offered on standard broadcast, the centerpiece being The Good Fight, spun off the network’s Emmy-winning drama, The Good Wife, which ended its seven season run a year ago. That’s why it costs the six bucks a month to subscribe. Also, you get to watch shows without commercials, and that’s worth the price of admission to a lot of people. It is, in fact, why I pay the extra four bucks each month for my Hulu subscription, to avoid such interruptions and intrusions.
Speaking of Hulu, there’s this: ABC, NBC and Fox all have their shows streaming there, seeing as how they are all part owners of the service. As mentioned just a couple sentences ago, there are two monthly rates for subscribers, the $11.99 I pay for no interruptions, and the $7.99 paid for those who don’t mind such things. Or who are just cheap. Works both ways, really.
Still with me? Okay, good, because here’s where I’m really confused. To avoid paying a regular cable provider, but still getting to watch the four major networks, I would have to pay $17.98 each month. For basic cable nets, I can go to Sling, and pay anywhere from $20 to $40 per month, depending on the extent of my subscription, but let’s set that aside for a moment, because what I don’t get is why the four major networks have agreed to this, for the simple reason that it appears to compete against their own services.
Think about it. If I’m interested in watching CBS, but not paying for cable, I would sign up for All-Access. But it doesn’t appear that YouTube TV will stream CBS’ All-Access programing, which defeats the whole purpose. Likewise, if I want to see programming for the other three networks, my Hulu subscription covers it, and I get Hulu original programming with that subscription, too.
On top of that, Hulu has been developing its own live TV service, which it is planning to launch soon and which will cost about the same as the YouTube TV subscription. Honestly, this just further muddies the waters for me because, from what I infer from all this, the networks have either signed up to stream on a service that is a direct competitor to their own interests, which is completely baffling and counterintuitive, or, far more likely, they’re playing viewers for suckers, expecting them to sign up for both, and getting them with a devious double dip, which is downright distasteful.
I generally don’t buy the “we’ll do anything to get your eyeballs on us” argument that some might proffer, since there are more and more methods to do so with each passing month, and there shouldn’t be any reason to double up on any of them. The more I think about it, it just feels like a cynical cash grab, and a not-so-thinly veiled one, at that.
It sort of goes hand in hand with AT&T’s announcement that it’s going to bundle HBO with an unlimited wireless plan. As of yesterday, the Unlimited Plus plan came with access to all HBO programming, which means that, even before the company’s attempted purchase of Time Warner — owner of HBO — goes through, it’s clear that the company’s brands are moving into some kind of synergy with the telecom giant to reach its customers.
Again, I’m not sure if there is anything inherently wrong with this kind of deal, but it does sort of raise my hackles, and not just because I’m with Sprint. The increasingly common consolidation of corporations limits the options of the consumers, even as our viewing options become more and more splintered.
There’s something oxymoronic about the whole thing. Something unsettling, too, which is kind of why I need someone to talk me through it. I’m giving myself a headache.