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TV subscription fatigue

During its announcement event yesterday, Apple announced that its TV+ subscription service is going to cost $4.99 a month, which is lower than I expected. A year-long free trial will come with new devices, which is something only Apple can really do; it will be interesting to see what conversions look like once the trial period is over.

That price is fascinating to me. We're being saturated with streaming video services. Between Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, CBS All Access and BritBox, I'm paying close to $50 a month for streaming video - before any extra money I spend on iTunes movies. I've also got a Spotify family plan for music. If I cared about sports, I might be paying for YouTube TV, and very quickly it's all added up to close to a hundred dollars a month on top of my broadband internet subscription (which are in themselves incredibly expensive in the US).

That's all well and good on a tech company salary, if still a bit eye-watering, but the average US monthly after-tax take-home pay is around $3,000. After more important expenses, there's no way these are acceptable costs for most Americans.

I think the first obvious thing that'll happen is account sharing: families or communities are likely to go in together and share account credentials between groups. The second is bundling. Mobile networks like T-Mobile already provide Netflix for free. While home broadband in the US is controlled by effective monopolies - it's very difficult in practice to find an alternative provider in any geographic area - the mobile market isn't subject to these restrictions. So I can easily imagine them competing with each other by bundling more and more content subscriptions as a differentiator. (As mobile bandwidth improves, I can also see mobile providers killing off wired broadband for most customers, which honestly isn't terrible news. Sorry / not sorry, Comcast.)

This isn't much different to the cable TV market of old, either in price or substance. There is a difference in content: American live TV is excrutiating to watch, and we seem to have killed the 30-second commercial in the process, which is joyful news. But ultimately, consumers will be paying huge monthly sums and subject to the bundling deals of whichever network they choose to be connected by, albeit with the ability to pay a la carte for additional subscriptions on top of our bundles. We'll swap one set of gatekeepers with another set of gatekeepers.

All of which makes me nostalgic for Freeview, the UK's free-to-air digital television service, which allows people with compatible devices to pick up on 70 TV channels and 30 radio stations for nothing. Yes, it's live, commercial-supported television, but the ultimate cost for consumers is very little (beyond the device and the UK's mandatory annual $190 license fee). That's not a situation we seem to be anywhere near to approaching in the US.