The digital Red Light District

The glut of video content providers has turned into the digital Red Light District of our time. Just like a visit to the real thing in Amsterdam, each visit ends the same way for the customer. (In the case of cable TV service, that’s definitely not a good thing.)

It used to be so simple: I signed up with the one cable TV company that hung around my neighborhood and learned to appreciate the all-night reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. It was more money than I wanted to spend, but it’s not like there were alternatives.

In time, other companies began appearing on my street corner. They flashed me channel lineups and service options I never knew existed. Eventually, my area was flooded with them, a company for every taste. Some could charge a premium, like DirectTV with its Sunday NFL Ticket package, or Cablevision with its exclusive local news channel. Others charged less but promised things like multiple DVR recording or expanded HD programming.

Still others tempted me with promises that they’d do it all: phone, cable, and Internet packages. In their analog depravity, there was nothing they wouldn’t service.

As still others darkened my door, some proved more desperate than others. They promised exotic packages at low monthly rates but put the screws to me as soon as the introductory period ran out. Companies kept their salespeople walking the streets, each with their own siren call designed to woo me away from my current provider. Eventually, they began offering me whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted it: on demand. I could access content from my laptop, my tablet, or my phone. They promised to strip my house naked of the wires that had tethered me to my set-top box.

Suddenly, I hated how old my provider looked in comparison; I kept switching to a newer, younger model. I felt dirty, unfaithful as I wept on the phone while discontinuing service: “It’s not you — it’s me.”

Was there no end to this digital debauchery?

The truth is that as I get older, I don’t need this form of entertainment as much as I used to. Catching every basketball game or each new episode of the “it” show is no longer dominating my every waking moment. These days, I just want companionship, a nice cuddle with a reasonable package that will be there for me as I get older. Like a Mormon missionary, the Internet has arrived to save me.

I’ve decided to baptize myself in the healing digital stream of the world wide web. I’m leaving the Red Light District behind and setting out on the great Westward Expansion of our time: the move toward the online streaming of content. There will be many hardships on the Trail: football games will be unavailable, taping events will be impossible, and TV shows will run unseen by my eyes. People will mention Downton Abbey and my eyes will gloss over. Many will see me as a radical Puritan, judgmental and prudish in my refusal to indulge in the fruit of the cable.

Regardless, I will restrict myself to that which can be found online: You Tube, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime. I must learn patience when faced with incomplete seasons of my favorite shows. I must show fortitude in the face of ESPN 360 not airing enough Big East games. I must show forgiveness when watching “webisodes” created exclusively for online broadcast. Most importantly, I must resist the urge to fall back into the content access package cesspool that threatens to soil this new frontier.

Many of the same temptations sown by cable providers are now rearing their ugly heads online. Netflix instituted a new policy forcing customers to pay twice for online access and DVD delivery. Hulu doesn’t even offer its free service to media players like Roku or Apple TV. Amazon Prime offers “free” video for its customers, but its offerings are pathetic: If you are a fan of ’70s era “After School Specials” and Erik Estrada’s more obscure work, then you’re in luck. Even You Tube has gotten into the video rental business, which is akin to the local elementary school kitchen branching out into the gourmet food industry.

It will be hard to wean myself from the cable TV teat, but it was always a forbidden love — especially at those prices. Besides, it’s not as if all those Red Light offerings will disappear anytime soon. Like a jilted fiancée who keeps her ring after the engagement is broken off, I still have my DirectTV satellite dish on my roof.

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