In the 1990s, pay-per-view TV became a big thing. If you wanted to watch certain sports or adult content channels, sometimes also feature movies, you had to call a certain number and pay to unlock them. The concept wasn’t new, but for a while, it went mainstream. Today, of course, streaming itself is the main thing, and with the exception of some events, mostly combat sports, we prefer to pay a flat rate. But that doesn’t mean pay-per-view is dead.
At Cé La Vi in Singapore, a cocktail costs $20. You’re paying not for the drink but for the view. The bar sits in the bow of the “ship” that is the architectural marvel sitting at the top of the world-famous Marina Bay Sands hotel, and people don’t go there to drink — they go there to see (and perhaps be seen). From the city’s impressive financial district with its skyscrapers to the futuristic “supertrees” in the Gardens by the Bay to the countless cargo ships waiting in the water just under the horizon, your eyes will feast on your surroundings — and that’s why a bottle of 21-year-old Japanese whisky costs $8,000.
Are the prices justified? Of course not. But it’s worth thinking about how they ended up on the menu.
In some parts of the world, where nature is generous and socioeconomics are not, the tourism industry charges remarkable sums for what should be, by all accounts, free. Why does it cost money to see the Niagara Falls, Mount Fuji, or Grand Canyon up close? They were here long before us. Then again, for natural wonders, we usually pay people to maintain them more so than profit off them.
When it comes to man-made structures, however, their creators often ask us to reach deeply into our pockets. “Want to go up this tower? Walk on that bridge? Enter this castle? That’ll be $50, thank you very much.” We make something worth looking at, and then we charge per view.
Like everything, the strategy has its ups and downs, the model its hot and not-so-hot seasons. In a world of abundance, at least when it comes to entertainment, charging $20 for a movie will not work for everyone — and when I can watch amazing travel videos for free on TikTok all day long, maybe asking me to pay $30 for a 20-minute experience is no longer the best way to get me to go.
If you ask me, the largest and most ridiculous chunk of the cost, however, is the social one, not the entertainment factor. Spending $10,000 on a bottle of champagne will not make the view any better — but it will show people you can afford to spend $10,000 on some bubbly, which…what is that for again?
Whether it’s on the TV, at the club, or at an UNESCO World Heritage site: Sometimes pay-per-view will be justified, and sometimes it won’t — but it’s always worth asking what you’re paying for.