‘Free’ carries its own cost

In Sunday’s Moneywise section, a Wall Street Journal columnist offered tips on how to save $10,000 by next Thanksgiving. Saving money is one thing, but being anti-business seems rather heretical for a “business” newspaper. Nevertheless, the column’s first suggestion makes capitalistic teeth grind. People are advised to “Dump the TV.”

It would be one thing if people were being urged to stop watching TV altogether, but no, that’s not it. According to the column: “There’s no need for a TV with the Internet,” says Molly Ruben-Long, who works for a nonprofit in New Orleans. “You can watch most shows for free online.” Savings: $600 a year.

Oh, there’s that magical Internet again, where everything is free. Saving money without feeling pain (expecting the same service for free) is a fanciful concept. It’s time the notion that people are chumps for paying for news, music, movies and TV in traditional ways because it can all be had for free online evolved into reality. There’s no voodoo cyber spell that allows services to be offered for free, while allowing their providers to stay in business.

Sure, watch those shows without charge now. But the commercials will catch up with viewers, along with greater Internet-access fees.

Why is the concept of paying for a desired service or product suddenly a foreign concept in our capitalism-based society? People will answer: The economy, stupid. But is it possible the undermining of so many industries by free access online contributed to the economy’s undoing? Yes, newspapers, TV networks, music and movie producers helped create the expectation of free content by putting it out there without charge, when the internet was new. (Music and movies suffer more from piracy issues, rather than being guilty of giving it away for free.) Back in the day, TV started out free, too. But great demand created the pay channels. For which people were/are happy to pay.

Which leads to a practical problem with advising people to “Dump the TV”: If people still want to watch TV, if they really enjoy television — sports, movies and anything else — watching it online is a less than satisfactory experience. The big flatscreen TVs are popular for a reason.

If you like TV, it’s not asking too much to pay for the privilege.

The column didn’t advise people to dump their newspaper subscriptions because they can read most newspapers online for free. To its credit, the Wall Street Journal charges for access to most of its online content. The TV networks will follow suit, one way or another. They have to; that’s business.