Are streaming services taking us back to the days of “evil cable?”

Cards on the table, I was inspired to write this article after reading an essay at Cord Cutters News entitled, “Are Sling TV, DIRECTV NOW, and PlayStation Vue Going to Turn into Evil Cable 2.0?” It’s a good read maybe check it out after you read this.

The question is a good one. There are a whole raft of new streaming services with more coming every day it seems. In addition to Sling TV, DIRECTV NOW, and PlayStation Vue, YouTube TV is rolling out slowly, and Hulu seems to be getting close to launching its service. All this sounds good until you remember the way things went down “last time.”

I remember when cable television swept across the nation in the 1980s. It seemed amazing, with local channels for usually under $15 a month and a whole bunch of new channels we’d never seen before. And then, in the late 1990s after a string of very enjoyable years with cable, things started to fall apart. The average cable bill rose at twice the rate of inflation or more in the 2000s, to the extent where the average person with a separate cable bill (in other words, no promo pricing) is paying over $85 a month. In that time, cable TV companies became some of the most reviled ones in America, with terrible customer service, high rates, and a product that just didn’t keep pace with America’s changing tastes.

Today, we have low-priced streaming services that seem great, but will they grow into bloated, messy, ignorant monstrosities that make us wish we’ve never met them? In 1985 it was impossible to think that cable companies would go that direction, but they did.

The article I read comes to a conclusion I agree with: that competition will keep this new wave of companies on our side. Cable TV was a sanctioned monopoly in most cities until the 2000s when satellite TV gained the ability to show local channels in most markets. By the time there was some legitimate competition, cable had already turned evil and it was too late.

On the other hand, there look to be at least ten options for live TV on the horizon: the streaming companies of course, plus the local cable company, the two satellite providers, and the antenna you can put up on your roof which gets better reception than ever before. This means no one can really feel safe in mistreating a customers, especially if there’s no contract and you can switch providers at any time. The internet is full of horror stories from people who tried to cancel their cable TV subscriptions, but if you want to cancel one of these streaming services, you just check a box on a web page. Fear of losing customers will keep these new services fresh and innovative. Competition with each other will mean they’ll evolve to serve new needs and demands, and since internet-delivered TV relies on wiring you already have, there’s no negotiation with greedy cities and towns to drive costs up.

The long and the short of it is, looking back at 1980s and 1990s cable TV isn’t going to tell you a lot about how these new streaming services are going to fare. Even looking at internet service providers, which are very likely the same companies who want to provide you cable TV, won’t tell you much. The closest match in recent history would have to be the browser wars of the 1990s. Web browsers got cheaper (eventually becoming free) at the same time becoming better until it’s almost impossible to have a bad browsing experience with a modern browser no matter which you choose. It’s just a matter of choosing the one with features you like and moving on, and of course you can switch at any time.

That’s the real promise of streaming TV, and that’s why I really doubt you’ll be cursing at your streaming TV provider in 20 years. Save all that anger for the cable company.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.