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You Won't Believe How Much It Costs To Watch Great TV

Photo of Liz Shannon Miller By Liz Shannon Miller | Indiewire April 11, 2014 at 10:52AM

Let's say you love great television. It's your hobby, your passion, maybe even relevant to your profession. And right now, it's tax time, so you're doing the books on your 2013 expenses -- you're adding up exactly how much it costs to keep up with EVERYTHING. Not just the basic cable subscription, but the premium channels -- gotta have the HBO and Showtime, maybe even Starz -- and the streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon, which all offer exclusive series (new and classic) you can't find elsewhere.
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Has it become cost-prohibitive to watch the best new shows?
Has it become cost-prohibitive to watch the best new shows?

Let's say you love great television. It's your hobby, your passion, maybe even relevant to your profession. And right now, it's tax time, so you're doing the books on your 2013 expenses -- you're adding up exactly how much it costs to keep up with EVERYTHING. Not just the basic cable subscription, but the premium channels -- gotta have the HBO and Showtime, maybe even Starz -- and the streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon, which all offer exclusive series (new and classic) you can't find elsewhere. 

You do the math. How much money did you spend to watch TV last year? $2,080.76.

That's an estimated $150/month for cable with premium HBO (rates vary across markets), $7.99/month for Netflix, $7.99/month for Hulu Plus, and $89 a year for Amazon (the price of which is now $99 a year).

Thus, the stage is set for the great Television Class War of 2014, pitting consumers, companies and creators against each other in a bloody grapple for cash and eyeballs. 

The Battle of Spoiler Hill

Game Of Thrones

Technically not a strategically significant conflict, the Battle of Spoiler Hill is for many a key reason why they shell out the full $2,000 each year. Because for many series, the most efficient way to keep up with the latest developments is to watch as close to the actual airing as possible. 

For those who watch live or on the same night that a show like "Game of Thrones" or "Breaking Bad" airs, the likelihood of events being ruined is very low. But relying on an iTunes season pass means hours of delay; waiting for Netflix or DVDs means months. Even HBO Go, which posts episodes almost simultaneously with their television airings, has recently been crumbling under huge demand.

Thus, while a cable subscription is easily the most expensive part of a TV fan's monthly media budget, forgoing it means exposure to some of the best plot twists happening is inevitable. 

Secret Pirate Attacks

The big caveat with all this is the word "legal" -- which is not a black-and-white term. Some people's only monthly expense is a high-speed Internet connection and/or a premium file-hosting service, through which they steal new episodes of everything they're interested in, as soon as they're available.

However, there's also the roommate who uses his other roommate's Netflix account, and the college kid who "borrows" her parents' HBO Go login to watch stuff in her dorm room. HBO is on the record as saying that it thinks it's great that users share their passwords, but will that change if or when, as long rumored, the company finally embraces the idea of offering HBO Go as a stand-alone service? And in the long run, these options shouldn't be encouraged, but still grow in popularity as a result. 

The Showrunner's Bold Offensive

The goal of a television showrunner used to be simple -- getting 100 episodes in the can meant a syndication deal, and subsequently huge dollars for every episode that followed. In a Vulture article covering the decision to hook up Monica and Chandler on "Friends," executive producer Scott Silveri was quoted as saying: "Without Monica and Chandler [getting together], [the show] ends three years earlier. I don't owe my whole house to them, but at least two bedrooms and a bath are because of them."

Now, however, the big deals being made aren't with network affiliates and cable networks. They're with streaming services like Hulu and Amazon, who have been extremely aggressive in signing not only exclusive second-run deals, but also show creators for original series.

And veteran showrunners like "Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan and "The X-Files" creator Chris Carter have been vocal about loving the experience of working directly with the streaming services for original series.

In the long term, the goal of a showrunner could become just this: to make the best show humanly possible, but not necessarily for the largest audience.

If HBO launched this year, after all, it's more than likely that they'd play Netflix's game and never report their ratings -- because, like Netflix, the ultimate driver of their business model isn't ad sales, but subscriptions. And for many showrunners, that approach could have real appeal.

The Cord-Cutter Revolt

It used to be that cord-cutting was about cost savings.

Beginning in 2010, canceling a cable subscription was no longer something for the extremely pretentious. Thanks to the wide array of digital alternatives to giving a company $150 a month, the "cord-cutting" movement began to grow in popularity.

Like any successful movement, it requires a strong sense of belief in what you're doing, not to mention resources. For cord-cutters, those resources boil down to the necessary technology (such as a set-top box like the Apple TV or Roku, or a computer fast enough to run Netflix smoothly). Also necessary is the willingness to continue paying subscription fees -- much smaller fees, admittedly, but for a more limited quantity of content.

As the TV landscape is increasingly united by technology, the differentiation between what you watch on your phone versus what you watch on your computer versus what you watch on your television shrinks with every passing year (and it vanishes completely for those under the age of 13).

But the services and companies bringing to you this content have a vested interest in making you pay for it, especially as these new business models may, not too very long from now, have to replace the old ways of financing television. They're still trying to figure this out, which is why Hulu Plus subscribers are still watching ads despite paying a monthly fee and HBO Go is still only available with a cable subscription.

It used to be that cord-cutting was about cost savings. Now, these services are becoming required add-ons to existing subscriptions.

When you consider the origins of television -- the free broadcast channels of the 1950s, the airwaves owned by the government and the shows sponsored by soap companies -- there's no denying that the quality of what's out there has improved astronomically. But there's also no denying that it's become a lot less democratic. 

This article is related to: Television, HBO, HBO Go, Hulu, Hulu Plus, Netflix, News, Features







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