Cutting the Cable: It’s Easier Than You Think

4/24/09Follow @wroush

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browse and access video content when the computer is hooked into your TV and you’re sitting all the way across the room. My favorite is Boxee, a Mac program that’s paired with a very cool iPhone app that turns your phone into a remote control. (A Windows version of Boxee is on the way.) The Zinc video browser, from Littleton, MA-based ZeeVee, also works well.

The other new technology is the Roku Player, a little miracle in a box that lets you access on-demand movies and TV shows from both Netflix and Amazon. I bought one of the $99 Roku devices last month, and it works so well that I haven’t watched one actual Netflix DVD since I got it. (It should be noted, however, that many Netflix movies aren’t yet available for viewing on the Roku.)

The Roku Player connects directly to your TV and comes with its own small remote. To use it, you need to have either a Netflix or an Amazon account (preferably both), and either a home Wi-Fi network or an Ethernet cable long enough to connect your Internet modem to the player. The machine is simplicity itself: All it does is allow you to watch on-demand videos that you’ve already chosen online by adding them to your Netflix “Watch Instantly” queue—a free service for anyone with at least an $8.99 per month plan—or by renting them at Amazon Video on Demand. You can pause, rewind, fast-forward, and rate videos, and that’s it. The video is sharp and clear, though the faster your home network, the better your results will be. (Just yesterday, as it happens, the Roku service got upgraded to support high-definition rental movies and TV shows from Amazon.) I’ve only experienced one serious glitch with the Roku box—it lost its connection to Amazon while I was renting the final episode of Battlestar Galactica on March 20, probably because every other sci-fi fan was watching it at the same time.

The Boxee InterfaceTogether, all of these resources more than make up for my old cable subscription, and I’m saving $75 per month—meaning, from one point of view, that the Roku box paid for itself in less than two months. I’m hardly a pioneer in the cable-free movement, of course: after my July column plenty of you wrote in to say you’d already cut the cord, and the media have been full of articles lately about how households can economize on entertainment and communications expenses. (An April 8 New York Times article entitled “How to Cut the Beastly Cost of Digital Services” was particularly good, though it didn’t go into the online alternatives to the cable channels.)

The new focus on pay TV’s exorbitant cost and how to lower it must be extremely worrisome for the cable and satellite TV companies themselves. Even apart from the competition they’re facing from online entertainment, they’re dealing with flat to declining overall demand, largely because they’ve done such a good job saturating the market up to now. (The number of basic cable subscribers hit a peak of 67 million households in 2001, and has since declined to about 64 million, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.) I bet their nightmare scenario goes something like this: Customers cut back on premium channels out of short-term frugality, then discover how much stuff there is to watch online, and then never add back their premium services after the recession ends.

But I have to say that I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the cable companies. Where are the new services, the discount packages, the cross-media offerings that might justify a cable bill of $1,200 a year or more? Why can’t I bookmark Web addresses I see on cable TV and have them sent to my e-mail address, the way Boston’s Backchannelmedia is helping on-air stations do? Why can’t I start watching a show on Comcast and finish watching it on my iPhone? The technology for such services is there, but the cable companies aren’t adopting it nearly fast enough to keep their restive, technology-savvy, early-adopting customers (in other words, people like me and probably like you) from defecting to other media sources.

There have been rumblings from the cable TV industry that the only way to prevent an implosion like the one striking the newspaper industry may be to cut off the supply of online video. In fact, Time Warner and Comcast are discussing initiatives to limit Internet video to customers who also pay for cable TV. But I’ve got news for them: While putting up such barriers might scare some existing cable customers into paralysis, it isn’t going to bring back those who have already cut the cord. In my case, it would just mean that I would stop watching the affected shows altogether, or rent them from iTunes or Amazon, or perhaps watch them on my mobile phone over my 3G (and soon enough, 4G) wireless connection.

The cable companies need to start adapting to the day when they will be nothing but dumb Internet pipes—because consumers are already starting to see them that way.

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

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