Almost 18 months ago, my family made what felt like an epic decision in our lives: We canceled our cable TV package.
I started reflecting on our cord-cutting adventures recently amid all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the CBS-Time Warner dispute that left parts of the U.S. unable to watch reruns of “Two and a Half Men” for a whole month. Oh, the humanity.
One topic that got a lot of attention was the supposed increase in people cutting the cord, and how that might be a good way to stick it to those greedy bosses who run these media and cable goliaths.
Dream on. I’ve learned two big things in my post-cable TV life:
• It’s great. I’m saving a bunch of money. And thanks to streaming Internet services, we’ve got way more stuff to watch than we could ever want.
• But … cutting the cord will remain a fringe activity for years to come. Watching the things you want to watch becomes a puzzle. It’s a lot of work to replace all the options you had with the flick of the remote.
It’s too much effort for most people to find and track all this content across different platforms. And the lack of reasonably priced options to watch sports will remain a deal-killer for many people.
But that doesn’t stop people from hoping that the masses will rise up and throw off the oppressive yoke of their local cable monopoly. Hating your cable company has become the new national pastime.
In recent weeks, the Los Angeles Times has run several stories raising the prospect of reaching the cable-cutting promised land. A sampling:
• “Why not pull the plug on cable?”
• “Tired of cable TV disputes, bills? More are cutting the cord”
• “Cord-cutting reality: Pay-TV industry loses 217,000 subscribers”
“Cord cutting used to be an urban myth,” my colleague David Lazarus quoted analyst Craig Moffett as saying. “It isn’t anymore.”
It’s true that you don’t need to be an engineer or major geek to tap into many of these new services. But you still might need to keep a spreadsheet handy to keep your viewing organized.
Let me just share our experience so far. I live in Oakland, Calif., where Comcast is my cable provider.
Two years ago, we found our cable bill had begun to creep up and up. Once, we were paying $100 a month or so for phone, cable and Internet. Next thing I knew, we were reaching $140 a month. And that didn’t include any pay channels like HBO.
It used to be that when the bill began to rise, I’d call Comcast and threaten to leave. And then they’d magically pull a “deal” out of their pocket to reduce my bill. And when that expired six months later, we’d do it all over again. You know the game.
Except two years ago, they stopped offering to do that. When I called about the bill, the operator verbally shrugged and didn’t offer any deals.
So, we decided to take the plunge. We would cut out cable and our home phone. Our bill dropped to around $72 per month. With money we were going to save, we decided to buy a 55-inch Panasonic Viera TV. Cutting the bill would pay for the TV in about a year.
We originally wanted to completely ditch Comcast. I was going to switch to a DSL provider called Sonic.net, whose broadband service cost about half as much as Comcast’s. But the Sonic dude who came out to test my line said the fastest speed I could get was 5 Mbps.
With Comcast, I have 25 Mbps. So no dice. We stuck with Comcast.
So far, so good.
The Viera was Internet-ready. It came loaded with applications for services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and Amazon. We already had Netflix streaming ($7.99 per month) and decided to add Hulu Plus ($7.99 per month.)
Overall, the new Panasonic TV is wonderful. But for all the research we did on Internet-ready TVs (and we did a lot) there was one thing that we didn’t discover until after we hooked up the TV. When the Viera connects to these Internet services, it doesn’t go directly through the Internet. It actually goes through Panasonic’s Viera servers.
The result: Those servers are less reliable than Comcast’s, and sometimes slower.
When the Viera servers are problematic, I switch over to Apple TV ($99 for the unit) which also has the Hulu and Netflix apps. And we’re back in business.
The trick now is managing and finding all the shows we wanted to watch.
When new seasons of shows like “Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Sons of Anarchy” come on, we have to wait a year or so before they become available on Netflix. We’re cool with that. But in the social-media days of limitless spoilers, that’s going to be tough for most folks.
As for HBO shows, those are not available for streaming unless you have a cable TV subscription and the HBO Go app. So we’ve also kept the Netflix DVD-by-mail service that we’ve had for over a decade.
That costs $11.99 per month, a fee we were paying before we cut the cord. And again, we just have to wait a year for the latest season to arrive.
Movies are also a challenge. As great as streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus are, they don’t offer many of the top box-office movies. So, if there are any of those we want to watch, we rent them off the iTunes store on Apple TV.
We try to limit those purchases, though, because they still come with ridiculous terms like requiring you to watch the whole movie within 24 hours of starting to watch it. Why?
And then there are still maddening rules about how and where shows get streamed that drive me crazy.
For instance, we wanted to watch the final season of “30 Rock.” We clicked on “30 Rock” on Hulu Plus on our Viera TV and saw the message: “Web only.” What? Turns out Hulu only has the rights to stream it on your laptop or PC, but not TVs or tablets and smartphones.
This isn’t the case for other NBC shows. Just “30 Rock.” It’s beyond me to understand the financial logic behind such a deal, but there it is.
So, we’re waiting to watch “30 Rock” on DVD from Netflix.
The big pain point, though, has been sports.
As a college basketball maniac, there was no real way this past season to watch my beloved Duke Blue Devils, who are frequently on ESPN, short of going to a bar twice a week.
This has made it easier for me to understand why Comcast has its own sports channel that broadcasts San Francisco Giants games.
Yes, you can subscribe to watch baseball games through MLB.com, but it’s expensive. In 2012, the service cost $19.99 to $24.99 per month. It’s a service only for the true baseball nut.
To watch the Summer Olympics last year, we spent $39.99 on an indoor HDTV antenna. And that worked OK – as long as everyone sat very still. We’re thinking about getting a more expensive antenna that we would mount on the roof. That remains on the to-do list.
And in case you’re wondering: Yes, people do pirate many of these things. There are plenty of illegal torrent services floating around on the Internet. But these do get quite complicated for the average user.
And even if you manage to download a show or movie, you have to make sure you have the right software to view it.
Or so I’ve heard.
Now, let’s be clear. All of these things clearly fall in the category of First World problems.
That said, TV is still a lean-back experience for people. The less thinking involved, the better. I mean, who needs TV to become a part-time chore on top of all the other stuff you have to remember to do every day?
But this is ultimately what you’re paying for when you get cable: simplicity and convenience.
And until someone comes along and truly revolutionizes TV, until the rules are changed to make content more accessible, paying the cable bill to keep things easy is a trade-off most consumers will continue make.