The slings and arrows of outrageous television
Some years back, when cable was the be-all and end-all of television delivery, people complained about the cost, and the argument that was always raised was this: “I am paying for 100 channels, but really, I only watch five or six.”
People wanted some sort of a la carte cable service, where they could tell the cable company which channels they wanted and pay only for those channels.
Be careful what you wish for.
I was not one of the people who ever asked for a la carte service. Yes, I probably only watched five or six channels regularly, but I liked having a choice, on those weird occasions when I would stumble across some interesting new show in one of the nooks and crannies of the television universe. I also understood the economics of the thing — if I went from paying for 100 channels to paying for 5, someone would take a bath. That might be the cable company, and it might be the cable channels. If my five favorite channels weren’t among the five most popular, they might have trouble staying afloat.
Well, over the years, things changed. Some cable channels became more ambitious, while others became less ambitious, stuffing their schedules full of cheap-to-produce, and often sleazy and exploitative, reality shows. Does anyone remember when A&E used to be considered a classy, upscale cable channel? The constantly-fragmenting audience meant that there was less room for moderately-priced everyday programming. To make money, a show had to be either really cheap or really outstanding, appointment television.
Then, of course, came streaming. As more and more people got high-speed Internet connections, they became able to view programming delivered over the Internet. At first, that meant mainly Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, plus a variety of minor free and ad-supported channels. But now it’s exploding. The major media companies like Disney, ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia are putting more and more emphasis on their streaming products, seeing them as the future. (Their local TV station affiliates sometimes complain that they are being abandoned and getting the short end of the stick.) Apple is sinking millions into its streaming service, Apple TV+.
As streaming services pump money into better and more ambitious programming, more people began watching them. First this was an adjunct to their cable TV programming, but then people began realizing they could drop their cable subscription and get a substantial diet of programming just through streaming. And they aren’t just watching new shows, either; they’re catching up on acclaimed shows they missed on their first airing, or bingeing old favorites from years and decades past.
I feel like I’m behind the curve on cord-cutting, but I know there are others behind me. One older friend posted that she wished she could be a cord-cutter but she felt overwhelmed by the idea of setting it up and using it. Another friend, closer to my age, asked me to share my experiences, with the expectation that she’ll be going the same route in the near future.
Since I am behind the curve, it may be arrogant for me to think that anyone’s interested in an explanation of cord-cutting. But I’ll direct this towards those who haven’t yet made the plunge.
Many of you, like me, have been streaming for years, while still maintaining your normal cable service. You can skip this next section, which is directed at the people who haven’t done any streaming at all.
Streaming services are delivered to your TV over the Internet. The most common setup is to use Wi-Fi. So you will need a high-speed Internet connection and a Wi-Fi router, both of which many households already have. Your Wi-Fi router may be a device you own and set up yourself, or it may be provided to you by your Internet provider, usually for a monthly fee. If you have an old Wi-Fi router, you may want to make sure that it’s robust enough to handle lots of video streaming.
When you’re running the numbers about whether cord-cutting is right for you, please remember that what you are paying for Internet right now may be affected by your other services. Up until last week, I had a “bundle” from my provider that included cable television, high-speed Internet and land-line telephone. There was a bundle discount. When I dropped the cable TV (and the land-line), the cost of my Internet went up because it was no longer part of a bundle. But the increase wasn’t as bad as I had feared.
Next, you will need either a streaming device or a smart TV (which is just a TV with streaming capabilities built in). Popular streaming devices include the Roku, the Google Chromecast, the Amazon Fire Stick and the Apple TV. (Apple TV is a device; Apple TV+ is a streaming service, similar to Netflix. I know, it’s confusing.)
I have been a Roku user for years after receiving one as a gift. I upgraded from my second to my third Roku device when I made the cord-cutting move, just thinking I needed the best and latest technology. That may have been wasteful, but it made me feel better. You will hook up the Roku, Chromecast or other device one of the inputs in the back of your TV, and follow the instructions to get it logged onto your home’s Wi-Fi network. It’s really not difficult. The worst part of it is using a remote control to navigate an on-screen keyboard and input your username and password, one character at a time.
If your TV has smart TV capabilities built in, of course, there’s nothing to plug in. All you have to do is make sure the TV is logged onto your Wi-Fi.
What to watch
Now you must set up the various “channels” on your Roku. (I will occasionally use Roku as shorthand from this point forward, but it will apply to any type of streaming device or smart TV.) Your device will already come with a variety of channels pre-loaded. Some of these, like Netflix, are paid channels that you have to sign up for. Others, like Crackle, are free and ad-supported. (You may or may not have to sign up for an account to watch the free channels.) Peacock, the new streaming service from NBCUniversal, offers a free, ad-supported plan plus two different levels of paid plans. The free plan doesn’t include all of the shows and movies that the paid plans include, however.
There are dozens, even hundreds of additional channels that can be downloaded from the Roku channel store (or the equivalent channel stores for Chromecast, Amazon Fire Stick or Apple TV, or the company that made your smart TV).
The fact that Netflix is pre-loaded on your Roku or smart TV does not mean you are signed up for Netflix. If there’s a channel that does not interest you or that you cannot afford right now, just ignore it. (You may be able to actually delete it from the listing, depending on your device.) Some channels offer free trial subscriptions so that you can explore their programming. Downloading a channel from the channel store does not automatically subscribe you to it, either. Subscription-based channels have to be activated. Often, you must go to the channel’s website on your computer to sign up for an account and sign up for a free trial or for the actual paid service. When you first open that channel on your Roku or other device, it will tell you how to link your device to that account that you just created using your computer.
When we talk about a streaming “channel,” it can be kind of confusing. It doesn’t always mean the same thing as a cable channel. There are several types of smart TV/streaming channels:
On-demand streaming: This refers to channels like Netflix or Disney+ (or Crackle, on the free, ad-supported side) where you enjoy shows or movies on demand. There’s no schedule to follow; you can start or stop a program any time you like.
Live streaming: This refers to programming that works like the TV you grew up with; you watch whatever is on at the moment. There are some livestreaming channels that are just that — single channels.
But the confusing thing here is that many Roku “channels” are not one channel but many channels — sort of like a miniature cable package. Many cord-cutters sign up for a multi-channel streaming package like Sling TV. Sling TV includes many of your favorite cable channels, exactly as you would have watched them on your cable subscription. If you click on the Sling TV “channel” from the main Roku menu, you get a Sling TV menu that shows you all of Sling’s available cable channels, and you can surf through them just as if you were watching cable TV. Sling TV has several different packages — almost all of them cheaper than your old cable plan — and lets you customize a package with little add-on channels. It’s probably close to what some people imagined when they wanted an a la carte cable service.
When I cancelled my cable service, my cable and internet provider — which no doubt has been dealing with its share of cord-cutters — offered me its own streaming package. I took it at first, but after a week or so I realize that I can get everything they’re offering me, plus other channels in which I’m more interested, elsewhere. I plan to drop the provider’s streaming service in a few weeks, after the dust settles.
A prime alternative to Sling TV is YouTube TV. Despite its name, it’s not a place to watch funny cat videos; it’s a streaming channel featuring a selection of cable channels, just like Sling TV.
Sling TV and YouTube TV are paid services. Pluto TV is a free service that works the same way, but it’s got much more eclectic programming. Some of its channels are dedicated to one specific classic TV show. There’s a “Carol Burnett Show” channel, for example. All Carol, all the time. Some of Pluto’s other channels are sort of junior versions of existing cable channels, re-running classics from that particular channel’s library.
Live and on demand: Just to confuse matters further, some of the bigger players in streaming now offer both scheduled programming and on-demand programming. CBS All Access, for example, is mostly on-demand programming, but you can also click on live streams of your local CBS affiliate or a 24-hour CBS News channel. The same goes for the PBS app. Peacock has not only on-demand shows and movies but also some live channels, such as a 24-hour “Saturday Night Live” channel which strings together skits and funny moments from throughout the show’s 45-year history.
Streaming is all well and good, but what about your local TV stations? It depends. YouTube TV and Hulu offer packages of your local TV channels, and you may be able to get them other places as well. If your main interest is the local newscast, your favorite station may have a Roku app that allows you to watch its newscasts or individual news segments. As I’ve already mentioned, CBS affiliates can be watched through CBS All Access. In some specific areas, local NBC and Fox stations are available on Sling TV. They aren’t in my area; I think it depends on whether your local station is an affiliate or is actually owned and operated by the network.
I live in an apartment building in a rural area. I can’t put up an HD antenna. If you’re closer to the big city, though, or want to spend money on a quality rooftop HD antenna with a signal booster, you may be better off just getting your local stations the old-fashioned way, over the airwaves. Sling offers a package deal in partnership with a company that sells HD antenna systems.
Keep an eye on costs
The idea of dropping your cable subscription sounds like a huge windfall — and it is. But it doesn’t take long for a variety of streaming subscriptions to add up, and if you’re doing this to save money you need to be aware of what you’re spending on them. With new services like HBO Max popping up like dandelions, it sometimes seems like you have to sign up for a separate service for each of your favorite shows.
Before you start, look over multi-channel services like Sling TV or YouTube TV to see what channel packages are offered.
Look for special deals or packages. Some streaming services offer a discount for paying annually instead of monthly. (Make sure it’s a service you’re going to watch; maybe sign up on the monthly plan first, then switch to the annual plan once you’re sure.) Disney offers a special combo rate for Disney+ plus Hulu plus ESPN.
The major streaming services, at least so far, make it easy to take a break and sign back on later. Some cord-cutters will sign up with Netflix for a while, and catch up on their favorite Netflix shows, then drop Netflix and pick up, say, Hulu for a few months. Then they’ll drop Hulu and pick up CBS All Access. By the time they get back to Netflix, they’ll have a bunch of new shows and movies waiting for them. That can be one way to save money and use each service more efficiently.
Time will tell whether the streaming services try to crack down on this sort of thing.
Time will also tell whether the cable companies try to make up for the loss of their cable subscribers by jacking up the price of high-speed Internet. Some big cities have multiple choices when it comes to high-speed Internet service, but a small town like mine has far fewer.
We have gotten sort of what we were asking for; the ability to customize our TV service and pay only for the programming we intend to watch. In many ways, that’s a good thing, but it may not be the windfall we were expecting.
NOTE: This story, written in September 2020, refers at several points to CBS All Access. That service has announced it will be rebranding as Paramount+ in 2021, and adding additional content.