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 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.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

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

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