TV viewers can doff feed bag and just pick
For Digital Slobs, television and food are so closely tied that the lines between them are almost indistinguishable. We are what we eat; we are what we watch. Out of the frying pan, into the TV room. Garbage in, "The View" out.
Watching a football game without hot wings is -- like most any other life event without hot wings -- decidedly less than it should be.
But for the last 30 years or so, the TV experience has been primarily an all-you-can-eat affair, and long ago we wore out the carpet going to our favorite side of the buffet. We fill our plates with Comedy Central's baby back ribs, careful to avoid the carrots and celery sticks of the Oxygen network. But we pay for access to all of it, regardless.
The Digital Age is changing all of this, however, and there's no looking back. Among the trends:
A la carte cable: The press reports rumblings within the Federal Communications Commission in support of cafeteria-style programming, but providers don't see the percentages in it -- for good reason.
For example, my sports-addicted brother watches the NFL Network, not the Lifetime Movie Network. But since his cable system pipes both to his TV, his eyeballs are included in the "reach" numbers for both channels when it comes time to calibrate ad rates. If he and others could opt out of LMN, its ad rates would plummet. Thus, weaker channels would not survive. FitTV, we barely knew ye.
And just like a restaurant's Catch of the Day, market prices kick in. You might pay only $1 a month for TBS, but if you have a 10-year-old daughter, you would likely be coerced to yield a week's pay for any channel that has Hannah Montana concerts on a perpetual loop.
But without strict price caps, your choices might be ESPN for $49.99 a month or ESPN and every other channel in the known universe for $1 more.
Still, cable will change its menu, pushed and/or pulled kicking and/or screaming to compete with the Digital Age's hip new downloadable recipes. Among them:
Apple-a-day TV: You can now plug a tiny, book-size computer into your TV and ditch your cable provider altogether. Apple TV devices access the iTunes store, and through that you can download movies and TV shows on a pay-as-you-go basis, then take all that media with you on your iPhone or iPod.
Netflix on tap: The DVD-rental-by-mail company now offers unlimited titles via download. This means, for a monthly fee, you can watch as many flicks as you'd like on your computer without having to wait by the mailbox in between.
Hulu on the menu: Prefer your TV ad-supported and free? Hulu.com, currently in private beta, streams almost-fresh content from NBC and Fox Networks. Commercials interrupt just like in the good ol' days, but they last only 15 or 30 seconds. So, if you need a bathroom break, hit pause or take your laptop with you. Don't gasp -- you know you've done it.
Clearly, TV is going from populist greasy spoon to elite fine dining. Don't be caught lounging on the couch without formal underwear.