Thoughts on Cord Cutting

My household recently stopped subscribing to traditional cable television in favor of contract-free streaming alternatives. Here are some thoughts.

Back in late 2007 I bought a Hauppauge TV capture card and used MythTV to capture and record television on a Linux-based computer. For a time the programming data was free, but eventually that community transitioned to a paid version as the free data was no longer available.

But TV circa 2008 was still the best TV has been for me, in terms of experience. Unfortunately, with the advent of HD, HDMI, and copy protection, that experience was no longer available. It’s a damned shame, and it has only strengthened my belief that the competition and copyright law have failed consumers. But now there are some bright spots with the advent of non-cable offerings.

We went with Roku to get the videos on the TVs. Roku seems to be the big name in third-party hardware. If the FCC hadn’t decided to can the rule changes to allow third-party cable boxes, who knows how much that market could have expanded (probably encompassing streaming video and providing a useful bridge for the market), but for now Roku seems like the best option. It’s not a company with outside focuses like hardware or retail, so, like Tivo, they should have an incentive to deliver a good, focused product without encumberments. But one hopes that more vendors and options will crop up to compete in this space.

The hardware itself works well. One caveat that wasn’t clear when we were setting up: you should consider making multiple Roku accounts for multiple devices. If you do not, they “mirror” each other so that apps installed on one Roku are available on the others. If you want customization on each one, you need separate accounts. (This is dumb, of course; Roku can and should let the users decide on account separation and device separation… separately.)

In terms of content-parity, we aren’t missing much, and what’s missing is owed to the tradeoff in price and usability rather than a market deficiency. Some of the cable channels want to continue to bundle and to charge higher prices, and some of the streaming services are looking to keep prices down. On the other hand, there’s still a bunch of sports and other content that we don’t care about but are still included. A la carte it is not, but given how long it took the market to get to this point, it’s one step at a time.

We’re saving a lot of money, too. That was the prime driver of our switch: the rates kept going up year-to-year, and we didn’t care to throw a tantrum just to see the price drop a little. The cable provider loses a dependable chunk of income because they couldn’t manage their pricing properly. The cable industry is regulated at the federal, state, and local level, and yet they regularly manage to rip people off. Talk about underregulation! Can I get an amen, my conservative brethren?!

In terms of user-interface, I wouldn’t say that the Roku is better. The apps on it are developed by the respective media companies or their contractors. They have their bright and dark spots. The cable box interface was always pretty bad, and none of them can touch MythTV circa 2008 in terms of utility, but they’re all more or less usable.

There’s an overemphasis on showing you posters rather than text, of arranging things in grids that don’t typewriter-cycle (i.e., don’t go from the top right item to the bottom left if you continue to go right past the end of the row). Some of the services have weird rules about watching things “live” (at broadcast time) rather than waiting a half-hour, or rules about fast-forwarding if you watch a “recording” after a certain period of time (because they want you to watch commercials?).

It’s all very absurdist, but cable television was, too.

The main benefit is price and the promise of increased competition that comes from the lack of a contract with any of the services. If the price starts rising on our current selections, we can change or drop them as needed. But choice is a factor, too. We may yet try some of the alternatives that have their own original content. For now we’re sticking with a pretty minimal option. There’s always something to watch, and there isn’t a lot of pressure to watch the next big thing.

How Unbundling Television Will Go

With HBO and CBS announcing plans for digital subscriptions, the future of television continues to look like people choosing what to watch rather than being corralled into overpriced packages. But there is a grave uncertainty in it. What if viewers trade one overpriced cable bill for a set of overpriced services?

The average cable bill is around $80. So that’s roughly four options at $20 each or eight at $10 or 16 at $5. But prices and content offerings will not be uniform. So you might pay $20 for a couple, then $5 for a couple.

But businesses want you to pay them more money. If a business is selling a package for $20, but you really only want one item from that package, eventually they’ll decide to sell it to you. How long will that take? They already do this through syndication. The whole business model of HBO is a secondary market. After the theater, before cable or network, the studios can rent it to HBO. Or Netflix, or whomever.

In all likelihood it will shake out to:

  1. Premium, first-run services
  2. Pay-per-episode and -per-season services
  3. Big-tent, tertiary-run services

So you might really want to see a lot of what one vendor puts out. You’ll buy their first-run service for $20. And then you might have a few shows from other creators that you want, but not enough for their service. There you’ll buy a season pass or the like. And then you’ll get a big-tent service to provide you with older content.

For first-run fiends with a heavy case of fear of losing out, the post-unbundling world will likely be about as expensive as it is now. It will be cheaper if you don’t watch a ton of content or are willing to wait. Will it be cheaper if you can stand to watch some advertisements?

Advertising is a big question mark. It will likely appear on the big-tents, at least at the lowest rung. It will probably be limited in pay-per setups. But it remains to be seen if it will show up in the premium services. The age of the DVR has tons of people just skipping over ads as it is. Why they bother with them when they’re easily skipped is unknown. Even if you couldn’t skip ads, the modern viewer can just pivot to checking a social feed while a muted ad plays on.

Another big question is in integration. Sure, with a streambox like many companies offer you can integrate multiple streaming services. But will the general purpose computer be stuck with separated apps and sites? Will a streambox App come that lets you integrate streams, or will that be blocked by streaming companies?

Unanswered questions aside, the new rules look a lot like old rules. Patience is a virtue, and can save you money on content. Fear of losing out is a losing strategy. Keep your friends close and your weapons loaded. Wait, that one’s for zombies. Maybe the biggest rule will be: there’s still very little content worth your time, no matter how cheap or how much content there is to choose from (with the caveats being that there’s more of it than you recognize, and you’re often wrong about what you want to view).