The Super Bowl That Killed Cable

Credit: Kathryn Donohew Photography / Getty Images

This year's Super Bowl is historic, for many reasons. It's the 50th Super Bowl, and possibly the last professional football game, big or small, for Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who implied as much after his team won the AFC championship. But there's another milestone about to be crossed this weekend, that has wider implications for the way we consume TV, sports or otherwise. More than any previous year, the Super Bowl will be widely available to stream, free of charge, to virtually everyone in the United States with the right gear.

There are surprisingly few caveats or strings attached. Along with broadcasting the game live over-the-air and via cable and satellite providers, CBS is letting viewers stream the Super Bowl on a range of streaming devices, including Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Xbox One. Users have to download the free CBS Sports app, but don't have to enter login info associated with a cable or satellite account.

For the cord-cutters of the world, that scrappy minority of viewers who've opted out of cable and satellite bills in favor of streaming video, this looks like a major victory. After all, sports is one of the most difficult kinds of content to watch without traditional pay TV content — you can binge through whole seasons of a drama on Amazon Instant or Netflix, but sports fans tend to want to watch games live, or as close to live as possible. And though Sling made headlines last year with its option to stream ESPN channels, the biggest NFL games are still on network TV, which has every reason to keep its viewers tied to old-school viewing modes.

By inviting the entire cord-cutting population to this year's Super Bowl party, CBS may have revealed the future of TV. It's an era in which networks and viewers have common cause — neither wants to deal with cable and satellite providers.

Ultimately, this is about advertising, and the roots of the medium. Television has always asked consumers to pay for content with their eyeballs. The ratio of ads to runtime has shifted over the years, but it's mostly settled down to roughly 16 minutes of commercials per hour of free TV. The price of watching was your time. Then came cable, which complicated things by charging for the privilege of watching TV, which was still largely riddled with commercials. Satellite providers helped broaden the potential pool of total eyeballs looking at those ads, but despite the larger size of today's TV-viewing audience, that original transaction is now buried under a slew of monthly fees, taxes, and temporary bundle discounts. To make things worse, pay-TV providers now make it easy for customers to fast-forward through commercials in recordings, a simple technical feature that threatens to grind the networks' meal ticket to a halt, if not derail the entire system.

In the long run, there's no reason for networks to be chummy with cable and satellite. Actually, there's every reason for them to follow CBS's lead, and pull an end-run right around the pay TV powers-that-be. That's because, when a commercial pops up during a streaming video, it's usually impossible to fast-forward beyond it. The most painless way to watch football is to DVR it, then wait a half-hour or more before starting, so you can zoom through the many, many commercial breaks. That's not possible in a live stream, or even in many On Demand–style streams of shows that have already aired. Even smaller cable networks, such as FX, that used to provide commercial-free streams of shows, are starting to make them just as common online as they are on the air. And, again, there's no way to skip those commercials. More streaming means more ads. More than just a victory for cord-cutters, this most-streamable Super Bowl ever is also a victory in the making for networks, and advertisers. The future of TV may be over the internet, but it's also shaping up to be packed with the sort of commercials we've been avoiding for years.

Of course, no one will be complaining about the non-skippable ads this year, since some portion of the human race supposedly watches the Super Bowl specifically for the commercials. This is a curious breed, who have a lot to look forward to, as the eyeball-based TV economy comes roaring back onto our screens.