Cutting the Cable: It’s Easier Than You Think

4/24/09Follow @wroush

In a column published last July, I vacillated publicly about whether it was time to stop paying extortionate rates to my local cable provider, Comcast, for the privilege of watching 17 minutes of commercials with every hour of programming.

Well, it took me a while, but in early March I finally cut the cord. I pared back my cable TV lineup to the basic $10 per month level (which includes 30 local and community-access channels) and handed back Comcast’s set-top box/DVR. At the same time, I canceled my land-line digital telephone service and went cellular-only, of which I’ll say more some other week. Of course, I kept my cable Internet service—which is surprisingly fast, averaging 15 to 20 megabits per second.

And I am here to report that life without premium cable channels is just fine.

Now, I certainly have not given up watching TV shows. In fact, I probably consume just as much video content now as I did before, maybe more. The difference is that these days I’m getting the majority of it on demand, over the Internet, with few or no commercials. It’s easier to do this than ever before, given the explosion of new technologies and services around online video—a few of which I want to describe in today’s column.

First a quick illustration of how quickly the online video market is changing. Here’s a chart that I included in my July column, showing which of my favorite shows were available online and where. (By ABC and NBC, I mean ABC.com, NBC.com, etc.):

ABC NBC Fox TNT SciFi iTunes Hulu Veoh
Battlestar Galactica X X
The Closer X X X
Friday Night Lights X X
Grey’s Anatomy X X X X
Heroes X X
Pushing Daisies X X X
Saving Grace X X
Sarah Connor Chronicles X X X

Here is the same chart today, with the addition of two new favorites that I wasn’t watching last year (24 and Fringe) and one video source that hadn’t fully emerged as of last summer (Amazon Video on Demand):

ABC NBC Fox TNT SciFi iTunes Hulu Veoh Amazon
Battlestar Galactica X X X X X X
The Closer X X X X
Friday Night Lights X X X X X
Fringe X X X X X
Grey’s Anatomy X X X
Heroes X X X X X
Pushing Daisies X X X
Saving Grace X X X X
Sarah Connor Chronicles X X X X X
24 X X X X X

As you can see, the chart has filled in quite a bit. All of my favorite shows* are now available on Hulu. Many of the shows that weren’t available last year from iTunes now are, thanks in part to last September’s rapprochement between Apple and NBC Universal. Veoh has also filled out its list significantly, and Amazon Video on Demand has come out of nowhere to become a serious rival to iTunes (well, not quite nowhere, but its predecessor service, Amazon Unbox, sucked, to be frank).

[*I have to mention in passing that I no longer watch Friday Night Lights, which lost its magic somewhere in season 2, or Heroes, which jumped the shark ages ago. But I kept them in the chart for completeness' sake. Also, Battlestar Galactica, Pushing Daisies, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles have all ended or been canceled. And I haven't listed the shows that I only ever obtained online, such as Mad Men. Also, you'll notice that I don't watch any TV sports. I realize that the prospect of giving up the sports broadcasts monopolized by ESPN and their ilk would be a show stopper for many sports fans.]

“But wait,” you say. “Why would I want to watch TV on my laptop or my desktop monitor, especially when I dropped a grand last year on a new HDTV?” I have three words for you: Cables to Go. This one-stop online shop has cables for connecting every type of computer to every conceivable brand of television. I have one cable that connects my Windows computer’s VGA port to my TV’s serial input, and another that connects the mini-DVI video port on my Mac laptop to my TV’s DVI-I input. A third handles audio. I can just fire up Hulu or iTunes on one of my computers, plug it into my TV, and I’m ready to watch from across the living room, often in high-definition quality.

There are two other new technologies that have helped to smooth my defection from cable. One is the new category of what you might call “10-foot browsers”: video aggregators with big, boxy interfaces that make it easier to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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