Let’s start with what happened to TV.
For decades, all TV signals were “over the air,” and free to be watched by anyone with a TV and an antenna. Then these things happened:
- Community Antenna TeleVision, aka CATV, gave us most or all of our free over-the-air channels, plus many more—for a monthly subscription fee. They delivered this service, literally, through a cable connection—one that looked like the old one that went to an outside antenna, but instead went back to the cable company’s local headquarters.
- Then premium TV (aka “pay,” “prestige” and “subscription” TV), along with one’s cable channel selection. This started with HBO and Showtime. It cost additional subscription fees but was inside your cable channel selection and your monthly cable bill.
- Then came streaming services, (aka Video on Demand, or VoD) showed up over the Internet, and then through media players you could hook up to your tv through an input (usually HDMI) aside from the one from your cable box, and your cable service—even if your Internet service was provided by the cable company. This is why the cable industry called all of these services “over the top,” or OTT. The main brands here were Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and Roku. Being delivered over the Internet rather than lumped in with all those cable channels, higher resolutions were possible. At best most cable services are “HD,” which was fine a decade ago, but is now quite retro. Want to watch TV in 4K, HDR, and all that? Subscribe through your smart OTT media intermediary.
- And now media players are baked into TVs. Go to Best Buy, Costco, Sam’s Club, Amazon, or Walmart, and you’ll see promos for “smart” Google, Fire (Amazon), Roku, webOS, and Tizen TVs—rather than just Sony, LG, Samsung, and other brands. Relatively cheap brands, such as Vizio, TCL, and Hisense, are essentially branded media players with secondary brand names on the bezel.
Economically speaking, all that built-in smartness is about two things. One is facilitating subscriptions, and the other is spying on you for the advertising business. But let’s table the latter and focus just on subscriptions, because that’s the way the service world is going.
More and more formerly free stuff on the Net is available only behind paywalls. Newspapers and magazines have been playing this game for some time. But, now that Substack is the new blogging, many writers there are paywalling their stuff as well. Remember SlideShare? Now it’s “Read free for 60 days.”
Podcasting is drifting in that direction too. SiriusXM and Spotify together paid over a half $billion to put a large mess of popular podcasts into subscription-based complete (SiriusXM) or partial (Spotify) paywall systems, pushing podcasting toward the place where premium TV has already sat for years—even though lots of popular podcasts are still paid for by advertising.
I could add a lot of data here, but I’m about to leave on a road trip. So I’ll leave it up to you. Look at what you’re spending now on subscriptions, and how that collection of expenses is going up. Also, take a look at how much of what was free on the Net and the Web is moving to a paid subscription model. The trend is not small, and I don’t see it stopping soon.