I Can’t Believe People Pay to Watch Television

Or Radio, For That Matter

In my last column, I suggested various forms of entertainment that you can find and engage in for free. Notably, I neglected radio, movies, or television as forms of entertainment. They are a straight-forward set of products, but thinking about them in new ways can lessen the financial impact of their seemingly irresistible draw.

I’ve never paid to listen to the radio, because someone else already did. For commercial radio, that’s the advertisers who pay the station to play their ads in-between songs and other songs. For non-profit radio (like our locally beloved KZFR and NSPR), awesome shows like Car Talk (RIP Tom) are paid for by grants, government funding, and listeners like you. (If you have donated to your local non-profit radio, there’s no shame in it. I’m just writing about money choices—for some people, that’s a worthy cause worth paying for.)

Given that radio has been free in my entire life’s experience, I have consistently laughed at the recently created product/service “radio that you pay for the privilege of listening to.” The plan was essentially—customers will pay to not listen to ads. Those clever business-types were right; there are over 24 million subscribers who will pay to not listen to ads. (I just haven’t met any of them.) But contrast radio with its sister entertainment, television. I know tons of people who pay to watch television, even with commercials.

Why does paying for commercial-less radio shock me, but paying for commercial-full television not? Cultural inertia—the mere fact that cable TV has existed for a long time normalizes its existence. Imagine if the two products/services were created in the opposite order—would we accept a new form of television that we have to pay to subscribe to, but still accept commercials? I doubt it. Or better yet—why shouldn’t the advertisers pay you to watch the show or listen to the radio? They are invading your time and seeking your attention. We might grant that.

There are a number of products and services that are attempting to eliminate the commercials from television and cable, or offer alternatives to them. Your local library rents out books, audiobooks, movies, and CDs for free, and they’re always getting new stuff. DVRs aim to help people skip through commercials, and streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime avoid commercials via asking you to pay for a subscription. Youtube videos are free, and you can install an ad-blocker. Podcasts and internet radio are often free, too, but again rely on commercials or a subscription. With a plethora of options, I cannot understand the willingness to pay forty to seventy dollars per month to watch television with commercials. Between the library and the internet, I have enough free entertainment in my home that I will never pay for television.

This week’s assignment: Visit the library, get a library card if you don’t have one, and borrow something—a book, graphic novel, audiobook, CD, or movie. (I hear they even have digital rentals, though I’m not currently up to speed on how that works.)