The telcos are headed for Hollywood again. Back in the 1990s, when Congress sort of deregulated telecommunications, AT&T, the then-Baby Bells and everybody else who could generate a dial tone saw themselves replacing cable TV and over-the-air television.
Pasty East Coast telco executives bought gold Rolexes and headed West, setting up operations poolside at the Beverly Hilton. But things didn't quite work out as planned.
Cable, though nearly as unpopular as Congress, proved just as difficult to dislodge and cable companies even had the nerve to start offering telephone service themselves, setting off a decadelongs struggle that often seemed more like a merger contest than an epic battle for customers. It didn't help that the cable packages the telcos put together were indistiguinshable from the ones cable had lashed together earlier.
Now that the players are merged down to a workable number -- AT&T and Verizon on the telco side, Comcast and, uh, Comcast on the cable side -- upstarts like Netflix and, for a little while, Aereo are proving disruptive, delivering movies and TV shows over the Internet. To make matters more confusing, just as the big guys have managed to get workable circuits into most American homes, consumers are abandoning not only cable TV but even their landline telephone.
What's a monopoly to do?
Well, AT&T is buying DirecTV and says it will be offering a vast menu of satellite video to urban dwellers and actual high-speed satellite broadband to rural dwellers.
Verizon, meanwhile, is plotting to offer what's being called a "TV-like service" over the Internet. Sony and Dish Network are doing the same, although the general wisdom is that they are seriously outgunned by Verizon.
Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam lifted the veil a bit this week at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference, saying the service will include "the Big 4 for sure" (meaning ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, presumably) as well as customized services from the likes of DreamWorks Animation.
The selling point, apparently, is that the content will be at least somewhat unbundled. “No one wants to have 300 channels on your wireless. Everyone understands it will go to a la carte. The question is what does that transition look like,” McAdam said, according to Deadline.
Did he say wireless? Yes, he did. Verizon apparently sees this TV-like service as something that's delivered wirelessly to your smartphone, iPad, etc., which is thought to be how Millennials prefer to consume their content, while the old folks are hunkered down in the den fiddling with FiOS and staring at their giant-screen TVs.
Keep in mind that wireless today (unlike the bad old broadcast days) is two-way and Verizon is increasingly offering upload speeds that rival download speeds, which McAdam says will make it easy for consumers not only to assemble their own packages of downloaded content but also create and upload content they create themselves. Sort of like, you know, the Internet.
It just could be that, soon, consumers will be able to put together their own bundles and pay only for what they want. While this is probably bad news for the hundreds of cable channels hardly anyone watches, it could turn out to be at least mildly good news for consumers.