From its inception in the 1950s through all of the 1970s, television content was pretty much free. In the 1980s, cable TV began to offer paid services, thus making TV like a utility--one that packed unique sports coverage, top-notch feature films, a new trend called MTV, and even Skin-a-Max (well after hours, of course). These days, pretty much every consumer electronics sector wants to sell you something on a monthly-payment basis, as opposed to a one-time fee. It's a great business model--just ask AT&T, which paid $48,500,000,000 for DirecTV and its roughly 30,000,000 national users.
DirecTV was one of the most successful early examples of subscription TV, taking the cable model and providing a better-looking, deeper-reaching product. For sports fans, the NFL package brought hometown games to every town for much less per month than the cost of buying season tickets. A die-hard hockey fan like me could get my beloved Philadelphia Flyers games when I lived 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles 9 (even if it's mostly the out-of-town feed). The value proposition was so strong that I once paid an installation company to drill holes (mostly without building permission) from the dish on the roof into the rain downspouts and ultimately through the window of my apartment bedroom back in 1997. It was well worth the higher fees, as the content was like nothing cable could dream of providing at the time.
In February 2005, online retailer Amazon cooked up the brilliant idea of Amazon Prime, where for about $79 per year members could get special deals (think "Gold Box specials" for all of the seasons of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos on Blu-ray for $79) paired with free two-day shipping. Ultimately, as Amazon morphed into a content provider of television, feature films, and music, members also got exclusive access to a Netflix-like catalog of content. In 2018, players like Amazon, Hulu, Apple, and Netflix are considered to be the Hollywood studios of the future where A-list talent is willing to go for out-of-the-box creative projects that consumers seemingly love.
Netflix is yet another example of a killer deal that lets movie and television enthusiasts pay a monthly fee and receive a bounty of content. The company has received criticism for increasing its monthly fees, but those criticisms are outweighed by the praise that has been heaped upon Netflix's binge-worthy content--ranging from Orange Is the New Black to House of Cards and a growing list of other new shows.
A seemingly less successful example is Apple's iPhone X. This slick smartphone is the coolest of the cool, but it comes with an ever-present $49/month charge on your credit card unless you buck up the almost $1,200 to buy the phone outright. Without question, the new phone is much more "snappy" than past iPhones and has a superior battery life in its "button-free" design--but many people, especially in Asia, don't like the new form factor and/or the high recurring monthly cost. Rumors are that Apple is potentially going to discontinue the iPhone X in mid-2018 with a revised version slated for early 2019. The question is, will it come with a new pricing model to own the product?
In the computer world, which has seeming merged with consumer AV via "convergence" or "The Internet of Things (IoT)," software manufacturers like Adobe are forcing long-time loyalists of their popular products to invest a healthy monthly fee as the only way to get their updated titles, such as Photoshop or Dreamweaver. At $29 per month (per title), these are not insignificant charges, and the software is no longer sold on an a 'la carte basis--if you want the latest version, you must sign up for per-month/per-user cost. I upgraded to said Adobe software when setting up a new Apple MacBook Pro recently, and I learned that the new software is almost identical to the old software, as is the case with Photoshop Creative Cloud versus Photoshop CS5. My main justification for upgrading to the latest Adobe software was that Dreamweaver CS5 now injects "junk code" into our HTML email newsletters so badly that our third-party email company won't accept the newsletter designs, as there are too many characters in the simple document. Sadly, the new Dreamweaver is even worse and nearly unusable. After two weeks of testing and a month of fees paid, I canceled and went back to Adobe Photoshop CS5, which is so old that it comes with installation DVDs. I know in a world with planned obsolescence that CS5 will be useless sooner than later, but I had little to no choice.
Microsoft Office for the Mac was even more severe in that it flat out didn't work on the new MacBook Pro. Microsoft also sells a somewhat tempting monthly plan, but I popped for the one-time fee for software that is in no way better than the older version--other than the fact that the geniuses in Redmond changed (or did away with) the best key strokes, didn't fix issues with inserting dates, and made Excel even harder to use. Just because you pay for something on a monthly basis doesn't mean you are getting a killer value.
In today's AV world, there are a ton of places where you can get hit up for monthly fees. We already covered the cable, satellite, and streaming fees. How about music services like TIDAL? For $20 per month, you can get damn near every album ever made with wonderful metadata, cover-flow art, and a growing list of HD-quality titles. Pandora wants a monthly fee for its commercial-free service but continues to offer a free version of its streaming music service. Spotify offers a similar business model. So do about 10 other music streaming services of varying levels of popularity.
My wife spent the last four years of her career working as project manager at 21st Century Fox helping to get their growing list of full-feature apps to work. Rupert Murdoch's sons thought these apps had a good chance to be the future of the network. Well, as of this past December, the future of the network is now in the hands of The Mouse (Hollywood slang for Disney), and my wife has moved on to a bigger and better position at Amazon Studios. Every network and content provider in this town is trying to get in the pocket of cord-cutters or younger cord-nevers (meaning people who have never had a cable/satellite bill and have grown up not knowing a world without smartphones to stream content).
With a nearly unlimited list of companies from every corner of the world--from Bed Bath and Beyond to Dollar Shave Club--looking to ding your credit card every month, my question to you is this: how much is too much? More and more, I am taking the "buy it now" option (to steal a phrase from eBay) when it comes to buying things. I just want to pay a fair price for an excellent product and/or service, but increasingly I am being given the monthly-only option, and that's a bit maddening. My credit card is an exercise in death by a 1,000 cuts, with more and more companies looking to wield their knives.
How much do you spend on monthly fee-based services? What is worth it to you, and what is not? Do you prefer to pay a one-time fee for a product instead of the lease-based model? Let us know where you stand in the Comments below.
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• Is Cord Cording Really Killing Traditional Pay TV? at HomeTheaterReview.com.