The Future Of Streaming TV Looks Increasingly Like Cable, But Free

from the the-more-things-change... dept

There’s been little doubt that the streaming TV revolution has been a decidedly good thing. Competition from streaming has resulted in more options, for less money, and greater programming flexibility than ever before. Streaming customer satisfaction is consistently higher than traditional cable TV as a result, and lumbering giants that fought against evolution for years (at times denying that cord cutting even existing) have been forced to actually try a little harder if they want to retain TV subscribers.

Of course the more things change, the more they stay the same. And a lot of the problems that plagued the traditional TV experience have made their way to streaming. For example, since broadcasters (which were primarily responsible for the unsustainable cost of traditional cable TV) must have their pound of flesh to satiate investor needs for quarterly returns, price hikes in live streaming service have been arriving fast and furiously. And the more the industry attempts to innovate, the more it finds itself retreading fairly familiar territory.

Case in point: to lure more users to its platforms and streaming hardware, Google is in talks with multiple companies to offer users free streaming TV channels, complete with ads:

“Google has held talks with companies distributing so-called FAST (free, ad-supported streaming television) channels, according to multiple industry insiders. These channels have the look and feel of traditional linear TV networks, complete with ad breaks and on-screen graphics. Free streaming channels could launch on Google TV as early as this fall, but the company may also wait to announce the initiative in conjunction with its smart TV partners in early 2022.”

Some TV vendors, like LG, have taken to partnering with services like Pluto TV so when you get your new TV, and if you don’t have cable, you get a viewing guide that sort of looks like cable. Namely a bunch of channels that usually offer (usually) dated content loaded with ads. This is usually tethered to on demand options in the hopes you’ll pony up money for better content. As a result, the hot trend du jour in streaming right now involves offering users something that looks an awful lot like traditional cable:

“That approach mirrors the way TV makers like LG and Samsung have integrated free streaming channels into their platforms. For these TV makers, free channels have become an overnight success story. Samsung alone streams “billions of minutes” of linear programming via its TV Plus service every month, Samsung Electronics SVP Sang Kim told Protocol last year.”

The difference, of course, is that this is all free. The money is made both off of ads, and off of collecting and selling access to your daily behavioral and viewing data, without telling consumers or letting them opt out (see the 2017 Vizio settlement with the FTC). Selling access to this data is so profitable, companies have made it clear that revenue from selling TVs themselves have become almost secondary. As with most “smart” devices there are often tradeoffs to this model, including the fact that not a whole lot of thought has gone toward security and privacy. And as hardware makers, streaming companies, telecoms, and big tech platforms all attempt to battle for control of this data flow, I can foresee more than a few unforseen potholes and shenanigans.

Still, it’s amazing to see a sector that was so obstinately resistant to evolution finally evolve and try new things, even if many of these new ideas look more familiar than you would have suspected.

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Comments on “The Future Of Streaming TV Looks Increasingly Like Cable, But Free”

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Alister (profile) says:

Don't connect your 'smart' TV to the internet

This is exactly why I don’t connect any TVs directly to the internet. There’s a price premium for it, but I connect my TVs to AppleTVs and use them to run any of the apps I want for streaming or FTA TV channels. Also, every TV interface I’ve seen is hot garbage, but that’s a separate problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

There are dozens of free channels on freesat UK, on satellite TV, bbc, itv c4 etc bbc has 5 channels showing new drama, comedys , sport no ads. These show new programs British bake off, Dr who etc i presume satellite TV is available I suppose not every one wants to pay for Disney or apple TV plus not everyone has broadband in rural areas and of course people watch YouTube as well

Anonymous Coward says:

I get this site is more opinion blog than news source, but it really irritates me that multiple writers here regularly act like their opinion is obviously held by all the readers when it’s very much not.

There’s been little doubt that the streaming TV revolution has been a decidedly good thing. Competition from streaming has resulted in more options

Yet this is followed by:

since broadcasters (which were primarily responsible for the unsustainable cost of traditional cable TV) must have their pound of flesh to satiate investor needs for quarterly returns

So to recap, "more options" which have often been nothing but networks yanking all their content off third party streaming services to make more money for their shareholders is something you believe is so inherently good that no one can even question its greatness, but some price increases are just too damn much.

Broadcast companies make people buy new $8 streaming service because favorite show is removed from Netflix = good because more options. $1 per month/$10 per year increase by Disney = unacceptable profiteering. That’s such an absurdly asinine line of reasoning. I’m sure you can also figure out some way to explain that Hulu charging me $65 and providing fewer channels than Comcast for the same price is also great for consumers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I will say though Comcast tried to give my mom a "free streaming box" when she canceled her cable that she never used and was a remnant of a bundle deal. They of course never told her about the fee. Box is free, using it is not so sent it right back. Who knows how many hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people are getting fucked by that monthly fee though. I agree that kind of profiteering in response to declining cable sales is disgusting. But Disney+ and Peacock are just as trash.

cfb says:

Re: Re: Re:

The "Free streaming box" costing a fee is worse than that. It disables your ability to find and activate better comcast deals, requiring you to call where they only tell you about their worst deals.

And yes, the basic fees and charges on the Flex box are ridiculous. It’s not much more $ to get a full streaming provider like hulu live tv or google tv.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You’re confusing several points. Streaming has been very good because people have a wide range of options that didn’t exist when they could only access whatever cable service they happen to have offers, which in many places in the US is a monopoly that forces you to pay for dozens of channels you will never watch.

One potential downside of this is that you may have to subscribe to multiple services if you’re after specific titles, and that might require more effort or thought than you had to apply to passively consuming your cable package. But, there’s more choice and potentially a lot of savings depending on what you choose to watch.

"Broadcast companies make people buy new $8 streaming service"

You’re not forced to do anything of the sort. Even if you are, with the combination of free trials and the industry standard of there being no penalty if you decide to sub for 1 month to watch the show you wanted to watch then cancelling and going somewhere else gives you a lot more power and choice than you had with cable.

"$1 per month/$10 per year increase by Disney = unacceptable profiteering."

You can choose not to pay if you don’t want to.

"I’m sure you can also figure out some way to explain that Hulu charging me $65 and providing fewer channels than Comcast for the same price is also great for consumers."

Why, specifically, are you paying that tier and not the lower tiers and/or using one of their many competitors? Did you have an option to use someone other than Comcast before?

nerdrage (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The part that’s good is that the worthwhile content is now being made directly by streaming platforms, which run $4-$15/month and you only need to get one or two at a time. They’re easy to jump in and out of, no arguing with some Comcast rep on the phone.

So if you’re happy to actively manage your streaming accounts to get the best deal, it’s a bonus. If you don’t want to be bothered, then yeah I can see how it would be a nuisance.

Don’t pay $65 to Hulu for "live" TV unless you’re a sports fan (and even with sports, a better streaming option is bound to emerge). Ad-free Hulu is $12/month. Eventually I’ll sample Hulu for a month or two, hoover up anything good that’s built up in their library, and then bail. During that time I can pause Netflix and Disney+ so it won’t cost me anymore per month than now.

Not being a sports fan is the key here. You can really drive your streaming costs down to bare bones. All the content just sits there waiting for you if it’s owned by the streaming platform and won’t abruptly vanish, and content being owned by the streaming platform is becoming the standard now.

Paul Johnson (profile) says:

Its about not skipping ads

Adverts in broadcast TV are increasingly not watched; we have a PVR, and we routinely skip over ad breaks on recorded programmes. Even when watching live we often just hit pause during an ad break, do something else for 10 minutes, and then carry on, skipping ad breaks until we catch up.

I imagine a lot of others do the same, and I know this irritates the broadcast TV networks. But in this FAST model, like in YouTube, you can’t skip the adverts. The stream you want won’t carry on until the adverts have finished.

Time to make a cup of tea, I guess.

MikeVx (profile) says:

To me streaming is a failure.

On the data front, I managed to get a 49.5" dumb 4K TV, the only things connected to it that generate data are a Roku and an old first-gen Chrome stick that I got included with a cell phone, which is used mostly to put work-related webcasts on the TV.

Streaming has been a non-starter for me. A service like Netflix might have been worth it if they got rid of some of the bad habits dragged over from the broadcast era, but fragmenting has pretty much ruined the appeal except for specialty services like Anime, and those still have issues.

The content is the last thing considered when I look to streaming. If I’m paying for it, I have rules. The following are all deal-breakers:

On-screen logos.
Ads of any kind, even for other programs on your service. The guide/search is as close as you get. (Looking at you, Amazon Video.)
Guides must be static and silent, if I want a preview I’ll click on a button for the purpose. (Pluto TV, even free, has been relegated to news emergencies between the ads and the guide gunk, also no data more than two or so hours in the future is available.)
Credit mangling, squeezing, upcoming/next up overlays, etc.
Anything on a pause screen other than a progress bar that goes away after a few seconds. (Looking at you, Netflix.)
"Are you there?" timeouts.

Streaming, a potentially good idea that failed out of the gate.
Mostly little silver discs for me.

nerdrage (profile) says:

caveat emptor as usual

Streaming is definitely headed for two branches: the Netflix/Disney+ side where you pay to avoid ads; and the YouTube side (nothing new about this) where you get ads in return for free content. Maybe this content will become a bit more professional than the average for YouTube (or more likely it will be old professional content, repurposed over its lifespan).

Platforms like Roku will be involved because even if you can use Roku to access Netflix, they’ll be gathering data that would be valuable if they can lure you to their free, ad-supported content. Roku itself can produce and control that side. Netflix and Disney+ are just the lures to get you in their ecosystem.

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