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What keeps Pay TV ahead? It’s simple

Just putting aside all this talk about platform and technology for one moment, what with all the doomsayers’ talk of cord-cutting, the new year is really time to put Pay TV’s future in context. What really keeps us in the commander’s seat is content. It’s what we’re good at. Somehow, we seem to often make it difficult to see things that easily. But it’s also, really, what the consumer wants in the first place.

My last two favourite TV dramas are The Wire and Mad Men, by HBO and AMC, respectively. In terms of story and setting both couldn’t be further apart from each other. Baltimore’s current drug gangs and port authority workers are poles apart from the well-heeled 1960s Madison Avenue pitchmen. But both share an incredible ability for vivid story-telling from the creators, with a sense of drama and detail that excites and attracts with hypnotic ease. Thanks to The Wire, I bought the companion book and am a new fan of George Pelecanos novels. Thanks to Mad Men, I have the season box sets on Blu-Ray, just to marvel at behind-the-scenes goodies in their HD glory. Without the risk-taking of acclaimed channels like HBO and AMC, they may never have actually seen the light of day, let alone make the critcs’ ‘great’ list or win all those Emmys and Golden Globes.

The Wire creator David Simon probably sums up what Pay TV channels (and the business in general) has to say about its style of storytelling: “And if you decided, at any point – as many an early viewer of The Wire did – to change the channel, then so be it. But on HBO, nothing but the stories themselves was for sale and therefore – absent the Ford trucks and athletic shoes – there is nothing to mitigate against a sad story, an angry story, a subversive story, a disturbing story.” Simon goes on to elaborate that “The first thing we had to do was teach folks to watch television in a different way, to slow themselves down and pay attention, to immerse themselves in a way that the medium had long ago ceased to demand.”

And that’s what creates the premium content that continues to be absent on free-to-air. All Pay TV needs to do is to continue to exclusively deliver such premium content and keep it exclusive for as long as possible. Television filmmakers will no doubt continue their march to this platform as the preferred stage to develop great dramas.

Till that stops, there’s no reason to cut any kind of cord.