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Say Goodbye to TV’s Golden Age: Why Comcast’s Rise and Net Neutrality’s Downfall Will Change Everything

The economic model that sustains quality TV is under assault. Does the future have room for any more Walter Whites?

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Viewers be warned! The golden age of television is coming to an end, and here’s how it’s going to happen: An unholy cabal of judges, government regulators and “cord-cutting” millennials will decapitate it. Like the similarly beheaded Ned Stark, on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” we will miss it dearly when it’s gone.

For years, the “future of TV” has been an evergreen topic of discussion, but rarely have we seen weeks like the one just past, in which a cascade of news-breaking developments all but overwhelms our ability to make sense of them.

To recap: On Tuesday, Netflix  lambasted the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger, declaring it “a long-term threat” to the healthy ecosystem of the Internet. Comcast promptly riposted, dismissing Netflix as a querulous, hypocritical whiner with a shaky grasp on the facts. Then, on Wednesday, HBO  sucker-punched Netflix by agreeing to stream HBO shows through Amazon Prime, and AT&T fired a warning shot across everyone’s bow by announcing its own plans to get into the streaming video business with a “Netflix-like” service. Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of  American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc., which could end up resulting in the most influential high court ruling regarding how TV programs are distributed in decades.

And, to cap it all off, the FCC on Thursday released a tentative set of new guidelines for net neutrality that were immediately  greeted by critics as an appalling sell-out of “net neutrality,” and the hallowed guiding principles of the “Open Internet.”


To fully explore the intricacies of what’s at stake in any single one of these industry-reshaping eruptions would gobble up more hours than a marathon binge-watch of all five seasons of “Breaking Bad.” But there’s a crucial common thread: In every case, the economic model that currently underpins television (and bankrolls our amazing proliferation of high-quality productions) is under sustained assault. This is happening both from the bottom-up, as so-called cord-cutters seek an à la carte programming future; and from the top down, as telecom companies consolidate near-monopoly control of broadband. In the process, an inevitable transfer of power — from the content creators who make “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” and “Justified,” to the cable and satellite and telephone companies that distribute those TV shows — is underway.

It’s a complex witches’ brew: The changing habits of television consumers, the disrupting influence of technological innovation, and the decisions of both courts and regulators are enabling this shift. How everything will shake out is far from certain, but there’s a more-than-good chance that when we get to the other side, the landscape of television will be altered for the worse.

The reason why is simple: Great television requires  an awful lot of money. If content creators end up with a smaller piece of a shrinking pie … well, you don’t have to be Don Draper to figure out which way the wind will blow.

Before we can figure out how all the pieces in this crazy jigsaw puzzle fit together, we need to take a close look at how the TV business currently functions, and understand why so many people are unhappy with it. Because here’s the funny thing about the golden age of television: Even though there are more outstanding shows on the air than we can squeeze into our overstuffed DVRs, there’s also no shortage of grumbling. Specifically, there is widespread dissatisfaction with how hundreds of TV channels are packaged into all-or-nothing “bundles.” And people  just don’t seem to like bundling.

It’s easy to see why. If you aren’t a sports fan, why should you be paying for ESPN or the NBA on TNT? If you don’t have kids, what’s the use of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel? If all you crave is “The Americans” and “Fargo” and “Girls” and “Silicon Valley” why must you still be forced to flip through scores of channels stuffed with reality TV and “Big Bang Theory” reruns? This isn’t how we consume our music or our news in the Internet era. Why are we still stuck in this antediluvian age when it comes to TV?