ESPN drew the second largest cable audience ever with its Monday night telecast of the football game between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, second only to the 1993 CNN debate on NAFTA between Al Gore and Ross Perot. What’s more, the cable network drew more viewers, 10.85 million households, than any other channel that night. That followed a record rating for ESPN the week before when it televised the contest between Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. The migration of the popular Monday Night Football telecast to ESPN was expected to be a boon for the sports network as well as cable in general, but it caps an extraordinary trend over the past several years that has seen original programming on non-premium cable networks approach and at times exceed the quality and production values of programming on the broadcast networks. “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Daily Show,” are just three of the acclaimed shows that occupy bandwidth once relegated to fare such as endless reruns of “M*A*S*H,” vintage but overly familiar segments of “The Twilight Zone,” and old Chevy Chase movies. Add something as visible as Monday Night Football to the mix and suddenly the terms “cable” and “quality” don’t seem so discordant. And with consumers investing in pricey HDTV, home theater systems and ad-zapping DVRs, they are coming to see cable TV service as much more than just 57 channels to surf at any given time. Bruce Springsteen’s observation aside, there’s actually something on. The consequences are proving both good and bad. On the positive side, policymakers are questioning the entrenched belief that cable should be a local franchised monopoly. With telephone companies deploying TV via fiber to the home or through IP methods, the bar for quality, reliability and price is changing faster than it ever has. That’s competitive market forces at work. Consumers want a choice of service providers. Legislators in states such as California, New Jersey, Texas and six other states have decisively voted to change 30-year-old rules in response to that demand. On the downside, cable’s growth in viewership has led to calls that its programming be subject to the same constricting standards as broadcast TV. Because shows like “The Shield” features more graphic depictions of violence, adult language and adult themes, groups like the Parents Television Council, have begun an aggressive attack on cable content. Problem is, they come perilously close to arguing that the decision to enforce “decency” standards should be based on the number of people who are watching. Adam Thierer at the Progress & Freedom Foundation has done some excellent writing on how PTC and its allies equate pervasive with popular. Meanwhile, in one of the more reactionary essays on cable content I have seen, PTC’s Christopher Gildemeister demands that cable networks to go back to their humdrum fare of reruns. Check out how he waxes nostalgic about MTV’s formative days. Might be the first time PTC’s had anything good to say about the music network! The X factor in all of this is the Web. In just the past year, both the studios and networks have begun to build stronger links between cable programming and the Web. This extends beyond offering downloads of episodes, as is the case with iTunes and NBC Univseral. SciFi.com is offering a series of original three-minute “webisodes” covering story elements that occur between the end of Season 2 of “Battlestar Galactica” and the beginning of Season 3 (Oct. 6). Cable and the Web will begin to drive content on each other’s medium. Ultimately, TV delivery models may change completely. In a world of on-demand content, where there’s unprecedented control over what, when and how you watch, there’s very little room for the “indecency-is-pervasive” argument. TV habits and consumer demands are changing with the technology, perhaps faster than anyone thought. Let’s hope that regulators stay smart and let it happen without interference.
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.