In the recent topic about NBC's new streaming service the claim was made that:
This is straight-up worse for the consumer than it was before.
I responded to that comment, but wanted to expand on it a lot more. So here goes.
If you've never read about it, you might not know what TV was like before the internet, so I want to give a brief history of television in the US as I understand and remember it. I was born in the early 1970s, so that's where I'm coming from.
~1940-~1960 - Televisions are large heavy devices full of vacuum tubes. In order to watch something on your TV you also need a large metal antenna on the roof of your house. There are 3 television stations - ABC, NBC, and CBS and they all broadcast in standard definition. You can clearly pick up 1 or 2 of them, but the 3rd is always kind of staticky because their broadcast tower is just over that hill in the distance, so the signal is weak. In order to watch a show you have to be in front of your television when the show is on. All shows are in black and white. Except the characters. They're all white. And straight. And middle class. And Christian. The shows are "free" because sponsors buy advertising time at the beginning or ending of the show.
~1960-1970 - Televisions are still huge boxes that weigh a ton and are full of vacuum tubes. You still need a large antenna on your roof to get the shows, and it doesn't work very well when it's raining. There are now 2 or 3 local stations that have a variety of programming throughout the day and often show re-runs of older shows you used to watch. You still need to be in front of your television when the show is on in order to see it. Some shows are now in color! Except the characters. They're all white. And straight. And middle class. And mostly Christian, though there is an occasional Jew, usually for laughs. Oh, and the big networks use satellites to broadcast their programs to local affiliates across the country. (This will be relevant in the 1980s.) The shows continue to be paid for with your attention; ads now interrupt the show for a few short minutes between the first and second or second and third acts.
~1970-1980 - You can now buy a small television that uses transistors instead of huge vacuum tubes that always burn out. It has "rabbit ear" antennas that don't require installation on your roof. There are now 5-7 local stations including a public broadcasting station that mainly shows a strange woman doing something called "yoga". For a very high monthly price you can get cable which gives you pristine picture quality of all the channels in your area plus 1 channel that shows movies. You need to have an installer come to your house to set it up, and they can't tell you when they'll be there, but they'll come eventually. All shows are in color (except for reruns of shows from the 1950s). Even the characters are starting to show some color! (But not too much.) There are a handful of LGBT characters, usually played for laughs or shown as someone others consider sick. Advertisements now occur roughly every 5 minutes.
~1980-1990 - Televisions are now all electronic (but still has the huge cathode ray tube displaying the picture). Most don't even need a separate antenna. It doesn't matter anyway because cable is cheap enough that most middle-class households can afford it. (You still have to wait for an installer to come.) There are something like 30 channels! It's insane! You can get multiple cable channels that show recent (only 1-2 years old) hit movies. And you can video tape any show you want to see so you don't have to be in front of the TV when it's on. (Assuming you can figure out how to set the clock on your VCR, and the power doesn't blink off for even a second during the show, and the show isn't pre-empted by any news or sports, and the tape doesn't get shredded or self-destruct.) You can fast-forward through ads, and your TV may have a mute button to turn the sound off during ads if you're watching live. If you're really a TV nut you can buy a satellite antenna. It's a 6-foot diameter round metal dish you stick in your back yard. You can directly receive the feeds from the big networks. This allows you to occasionally see Tom Brokaw eating a sandwich during what would normally be a commercial break. If you can't afford a satellite dish, you get to see ads every 5 minutes, plus product placements during the shows. Characters seem to have gotten whiter, straighter, and Christianer than they were in the 1970s. Ads remain largely as intrusive as in the 1970s, there are just more of them now.
~1990-2000 - TVs remain largely unchanged from the 80s. Everyone has a VCR. Everyone now has cable. (Waiting to get it installed now takes longer than ever, and the cable companies are notorious for terrible customer service.) Cable has 100 channels. Most of it is complete dreck and uninteresting to you. Since these channels have to fill airtime 24/7, much of it ends up being "infomercials." However, because there are so many channels most of the non-white, non-Christian characters move to niche channels. (There still aren't very many LGBT characters.) Satellite dishes shrink to about 1 foot across and several companies launch satellites just to provide consumers with content. Several cable channels spring up to show re-runs with small pieces missing, filled in with ads. The ads are much louder than they used to be.
~2000-2010 - VCRs start getting replaced with digital video recorders that can set their own clocks and schedule shows by name rather than date and time. They can save a number of shows without changing tapes. Some have automatic ad-skipping technology. DVDs replace VHS tapes. Televisions start moving to high definition LCD panels. Installing cable takes longer than ever, but cable carries hundreds of channels including channels devoted only to a single sport like golf or tennis. You can get bundles that include different features like lots of movie channels, adult content, artistic content, sports packages, etc. There are a variety of channels with shows devoted to different groups of people including women, minorities, and LGBT populations. It becomes possible to download an episode of a television show or a movie to your computer or iPod over the internet in only 20 minutes. You can watch on the way to work or on an airplane!
~2010-now - Standard definition TVs are obsoleted. All TVs are now High Definition and some are even 4k Ultra High Definition with High Dynamic Range color. The satellite companies are hemorrhaging customers. People are "cutting the cord" and getting rid of cable TV, though most still get their internet through the local cable provider. There's often only a single choice of provider.
Here's what streaming TV over the internet involves:
You can now be almost anywhere and instantly watch almost any episode of any television show you want with pristine quality. You don't need to install any additional hardware and the device you watch it on fits in your pocket. You can literally go to a cell phone store, buy a phone, and start watching television on your new phone minutes later. And you can put that on your huge high resolution TV, too.
There are hundreds of streaming services, but you don't even need to subscribe to a service to find content. People are uploading it constantly. You can watch old episodes of thousands of shows as well as new original content for around what you used to pay for cable TV. You can watch educational stuff, or just short fun videos. You can find videos on every topic from every type of person about every type of person for better or worse.
And if you want to pay for video there are no ads. Nothing to mute, nothing to fast-forward through, nothing to annoy you. (There are still product placements, though they're usually subtle and make sense within the content.) If you watch part of a show on your phone on the train, when you get home, you can pick up where you left off on your television instantly. The weather doesn't affect the picture quality. Shows are never preempted because some politician is making a speech or a sporting event or awards show went longer than expected. There's always something on, even if it's a holiday or summer or there some big event you don't care about going on.
There is one down side: sometimes something you want to watch is on a service you have and then later it goes away, or it's not on a service you have. Usually you can subscribe to a service for 1 or 2 months, watch what you want and unsubscribe.