Felix Salmon smackdown watch, Netflix edition

September 20, 2011
Christopher Mims makes a really good point:

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Christopher Mims makes a really good point:

It makes no sense that writers like Felix Salmon, who is generally excellent on just about everything, describe Netfilx, even pre-split Netflix, as an inexpensive alternative to cable. It’s not. It’s only inexpensive if you take fast broadband at home for granted — you know, like every tech pundit and journalist on the planet.

To be fair, it’s a mistake all of those pundits makes regularly — the conflation of their own situation with that of the wider public. But only one in three Americans pays for broadband, which means that something like two-thirds of the population has access to it. That’s not bad (it’s not great either – it puts us something like 27th in world broadband penetration) and it leaves out precisely the people who are being left behind by both our economy and the digital divide.

I moved to the US before the rollout of the cable modem, and for me it was a game-changer: within a few months of its arrival, sometime in the late 90s, I switched from cable-and-no-broadband to broadband-and-no-cable. I was one of the earliest cord-cutters, long before YouTube or Netflix or any real video content on the web which I had any desire to watch. I didn’t want to watch TV on my computer: I just preferred content online to the content on the TV.

Now, over a decade later, it’s possible to look at the population more broadly, and see how their preferences have revealed themselves. And Mims is right: if you have a cable line coming into your home, you’re much more likely to have cable-and-no-broadband than you are to have broadband-and-no-cable. Cord-cutting was a privileged, yuppie behavior when I did it in the 90s, and it remains a privileged yuppie behavior today.* Sure, I like having an extra $100 in my wallet every month due to the fact that I don’t have cable. But I could easily afford it if I wanted it — the fact is that I stopped watching cable long before I cut that cord.

For the time being, the price of broadband — largely set by cable companies — is being set high enough that cable-but-no-broadband subscribers are not switching to broadband-but-no-cable. In order to cut the cord, it seems, you need broadband first: you need cable and broadband, and then you need to come to the decision that you can do without the cable bit.

So, yes, let’s slow down on visions of free or cheap online services supplanting cable for America’s poor. Because Mims is right: broadband is not free. And the cost of Netflix is therefore comparable to the cost of cable — with no live-TV services at all, and in general a much narrower selection of things to watch. At some point, I’m convinced that IP-based video will indeed replace cable. But in order for it to do so, the cost of broadband is going to have to come down. And that doesn’t look as though it’s going to happen any time soon.

*Update: What I mean here is that the behavior is displayed by privileged yuppies, not that it’s inherently yuppie. The kind of people I’m talking about are people who, given the choice between a lean-forward activity and a lean-back activity, tend to choose the former. Either because they prefer surfing the internet to channel surfing, or else because they have work to do online. Those people tend to be part of the employed-and-educated middle classes.


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