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The Real Reason Cruise Ship Cabin TVs Don't Carry the Big Networks | Frommer's Norwegian Cruise Line

The Real Reason Cruise Ship Cabin TVs Don't Carry the Big Networks

The minute you step aboard a cruise, you're entering a bubble. Your phone calls cease, your e-mails go unchecked, and day-to-day pressures can't reach you. A good cruise is like a world unto itself, and that's a big reason we go on them.

But when you embark on a cruise ship, you're also often saying goodbye to your favorite TV shows and sporting events, and not everyone craves a full suspension of their daily reality.

Regular cruise passengers know that the TV in your stateroom usually isn't capable of showing you much other than a few random third-tier channels cycling through the same old programming from yesteryear. If you're lucky, a few international news channels might be present, but if you wanted to stay up-to-date with anything on American network TV, including anything on ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox, cruise passengers are out of luck.

Nearly all cruise stateroom televisions omit the major networks. 

Why is that?

The problem isn't technology. Thanks of advances in satellite availability, it's possible to stream pretty much anything under good circumstances on cruise ships today, an advance that has allowed e-mail and FaceTime to pierce that once-impervious information bubble on board. The networks can easily be streamed online.

The answer is corporate budget cuts.

John Heald, a Carnival Cruise Line spokesperson, revealed the situation in a recent Facebook post targeted at his company's regular passengers. 

"Before Covid, the networks would allow us to broadcast the channels without charge, now they want a huge amount of money for every ship, so that’s why we, and I believe most cruise lines, do not have those network broadcast[s]," Heald wrote.

It's true the major networks have seen a major viewership decline, and budget cuts across network programming are evident. You can see the financial strain everywhere if you're paying attention: Network seasons are shorter and produce fewer episodes and show orders than before. In 2021, CBS's long-running Survivor hacked its 39-day seasons to virtual drive-through seasons of just 25 days and made additional production cuts. Even the good people at Late Night with Seth Meyers have had to eliminate the show's resident live band when they come back next season.

So now the cash-strapped networks are asking for more money in licensing fees—and the cruise lines don't want to pay up.

Many cruise ships also spend large chunks of the year roaming other continents, and if they were to stock cabin TVs with the local networks that are broadcast wherever they go, the in-room channel list would be ginormous.

But even for cruises that cater to Americans, cruise companies don't bother spending the money to obtain the channels. Cruise lines are corporations, too, and their only goal is profits for shareholders.

An executive at Norwegian Cruise Line once told me that the more time passengers spend in their rooms watching TV, the less time they're spending around the rest of the ship, spending money on up-charged things like booze, speciality dining, activities, and paintings of dancing olives. (He used other words, but the gist was the same.)

If you really want to stream network television, you can always purchase the highest-speed Wi-Fi package and try to use that. The cruise line will make more money if you do; Carnival's highest-tier package costs $22 a day. Coverage can be terrible and you may not succeed in watching any of Monday Night Football, but the cruise lines will still take your money when you fail.

So even beyond the network licensing fees, the incentive to improve stateroom TV channels and features simply isn't there. It would be a huge expense that doesn't have much financial upside for the cruise corporations, and the cruise lines are already profiting nicely from passenger frustration.

A rare exception is Disney Cruise Line. Because Disney currently owns ABC, it allows streaming of that network for free on board. But ABC's rival networks are banned from cabin TVs.

You'll also tend to find fuller-featured TVs on luxury-priced cruise lines, where perks like free movie streaming and the ability to stream from personal devices are paid for by a higher room tariff.

And that's the whole story. It's about money. 

Which Carnival's Heald basically confirmed as he closed out his explanation about the lack of network TV. The mass-market lines will only do it if they can figure out how to get more money for it. As Heald wrote, “We are adding more free movies and on some ships [and] extra pay-per-view movies as well and I hope this will help."