Apr 6, 2015 · 2 minutes

An increasing number of services like Sling TV and an upcoming streaming product from Apple want to offer access to select television channels without requiring people to sign up for cable television packages -- those holdovers from the pre-digital age which charge customers for access to hundreds of other channels, most of which they have no intention of ever watching.

That's good for consumers. It doesn't make sense to pay for a bunch of channels you'll never watch, and it's cheaper to sign up for one of these standalone services than it is to buy each new episode of your favorite shows through iTunes or Amazon.

But it scares cable companies -- and rightfully so. Their businesses were built on top of overcharging customers for things they don't want -- a model that is threatened by these services which remove all of that cruft.

So to ease their fears, companies like Time Warner -- which owns CNN, TNT, and TBS -- have demanded hard limits on the number of people who can subscribers for these services. If too many people sign up, the channels may reserve the right to remove shows and movies from products like Sling TV, which can only reach 2 million subscribers before shows may start to disappear.

Here's how Ad Age explains the motivation behind these subscriber caps:

Programmers want the skinny bundles to help them reach the estimated 10 million or so broadband subscribers who don't opt to buy pricey pay-TV packages, while making sure those less-costly plans don't encourage people to cut the cord with cable and satellite operators.
What's worse, even if Sling doesn't hit the 2 million subscriber count, customers may lose out on watching their favorite programs. Sling TV learned that over the weekend when its service went down for some of its customers during the Final Four games. The outage was blamed on the greater-than-anticipated demand for the championship games.

This problem isn't unique to Sling, either. As Quartz explains in a post about the "rickety, fickle, barely reliable future of television":

The breakdown was reminiscent of other recent streaming fails during major American cultural events: Aereo’s Golden Globes, ABC.com’s Oscars, and HBO Go’s True Detective finale. All buckled under the weight of excessive demand.

The irony is that these events are precisely why people who have otherwise abandoned traditional television maintain any interest in paying for live broadcasts over the internet. Shows like awards ceremonies and major sporting events can’t easily be replaced by on-demand services such as Netflix.

All of which leaves consumers with attractive services that finally allow them to watch what they want to watch without having to pay for all kinds of other things... unless they break under excessive demand or sign up too many subscribers.

Cutting the cord might be easier than ever, but that doesn't mean it's not a mess. And it's not hard to imagine why some people might prefer to pay ridiculous prices for their cable television subscriptions instead of trying these troubled services.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]