Full disclosure: I watch a lot of television. This is not some strange attempt at 21st-century braggadocio, but rather context for that rather inflammatory headline up there. Much of my job — being a person who writes about TV and the business behind it — involves watching TV. I am not your typical viewer.
But even before doing so became part of my job, I watched a lot of TV — hell, I used to watch a lot more, particularly as a broke recent college graduate in need of low-cost escapism.
And it was definitely low-cost. Depending on how many people were splitting our Time Warner Cable bill (TV and internet service), the amount I was spending on televisual entertainment ranged from 25 cents to 84 cents per hour. You may not watch even one-tenth of the channels available to you in a full-complement cable package, but you can actually get a pretty large bang for your buck (or 84 cents).
Yet the low rumble of thunder emanating from clouds of cord-cutters and -shavers and -nevers — misnomers all, since most of them are getting internet through some sort of cord — continues to shake the TV landscape. Could these staunch anti-cable pioneers be right? Could I still fulfill my escapist needs without a $145 monthly cable bill?
And so when I learned that I would have to switch cable companies anyway because of an impending move, I decided to “cut the cord” for a month. I acquired an antenna ($20) and an Apple TV ($149) and signed up for Optimum's $55-a-month internet service — the only choice in the building I was moving into — which gives me speeds of "up to 50 Mbps."
Of course, I couldn’t just quit paying for TV altogether. I'm still paying $10 for Netflix (essential for its back catalog and originals like “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”). And $8 for Hulu (limited commercials for all sorts of cable and broadcast shows I’ll inevitably miss watching live, plus their own excellent originals like “The Path”). And another $35 for Dish Network's live-TV-via-the-internet offering aimed at holding on to cord-cutters like me, Sling TV ($20 for the plain package that includes must-haves ESPN and AMC, plus $15 for HBO). The cost of an hour of “TV” has crept up to $1.20.
And, frankly, it sucks.
It is April 2. The internet has arrived at my new apartment. My excitement commingles with shame, as I had been without broadband service for only 12 waking hours. (Gen Y, amirite?)
It's also the day of the NCAA Final Four. Being a sports fan, I am unwilling to miss these two games, which are being telecast exclusively by Turner cable networks. Luckily for me, Sling carries all the Turner networks (TNT, TBS, CNN, etc.).
Unluckily for me, while the new Apple TV is sleek enough to inspire "2001: A Space Odyssey" levels of ape-awe, it does not support Sling, through which I was planning to stream the games. I download the Sling app onto a 5-year-old laptop and hook it up to my TV via an HDMI converter.
There's the usual minute or two of lag that happens any time you live-stream something instead of watching a broadcast, but other than that, the jury-rigged setup works rather well, with precious few buffering interruptions. The lag won't prove much of a problem until April 4, the day of the National Championship Game, which is decided by an honest-to-God buzzer-beater that Twitter alerted me to a full 98 seconds before I saw it on my screen.
Finishing the setup of my Apple TV takes an astonishingly long time, given how frictionless this Platinum Age of Tech is supposed to make even the most basic tasks. One must scroll endlessly, hopelessly, from letter to letter to input e-mail addresses and passwords and activation codes.
After all that time spent scrolling and clicking, the realization dawns that I have no idea what I actually want to watch on any of these services. I begin scrolling through Netflix and am distracted by the discovery that someone else has my Netflix password, because I certainly haven't been making my way through "Kolchak: The Night Stalker."
Five minutes later I give up, switch the TV's input to the old laptop and Sling TV, and let whatever early-evening movie AMC is showing play in the background. What I'm really hungry for, apparently, is sonic wallpaper.
My antenna is much more advanced than the literal coat hanger my family used when I was a child. It is flat and beige, meant to be hung unobtrusively on a wall, a miracle of modern design and technology. Mine is hooked up to a signal amplifier, so that "Diagnosis Murder" reruns on local channel WJLPDT come in clear as a Level VIII Operating Thetan. Let's see what else is on broadcast television this evening!
NBC: Were evening tabloid shows always this bile-inducingly stilted? The pros and cons of DIY lobotomy briefly come to mind.
On the other hand, "Extra" is definitely coming in clear and in HD.
CBS: Something that isn't "The Good Wife." A preview for a show wherein mostly women are murdered, and a middle-aged white man leads an investigative team.
Fox: A show I gave up on halfway through its first season. Still looking good from a picture quality standpoint, though!
ABC: Ruh-roh. Total static. Not having had cable as a child, I am well-versed in the Antenna Dance, though I perform it somewhat halfheartedly, because I know all I'm missing is "Dancing With the Stars," which I have been missing now for all 22 (yes, 22) seasons it has been on the air. I never do find the right position for this channel.
The CW: Unrelenting snow. My performance of the Antenna Dance intensifies as the clock ticks past the start time for "Jane the Virgin." Eventually I concede defeat and mute "#JanetheVirgin" and all related hashtags on Twitter to avoid spoilers. I will eventually fall behind on the rest of the season.
Nothing I like more than ending my night with a new episode of Comedy Central's antic girl buddy comedy "Broad City”!
…Sling TV does not currently carry Comedy Central or other Viacom networks in its basic package. Never mind.
The next morning, I attempt to use my old TWC cable login to watch it on Comedy Central's site. No dice. (This will be important in a few weeks.) I am forced to wait until the most recent episode appears in full online for those without a cable subscription. A friend sends me GIFs from the episode, because she's a jerk.
There's also the matter of FX’s "The Americans," which similarly airs Wednesday nights. FX won't make its way into a Sling package for another week (and even then, you'll have to choose which package you want: one that includes Disney-owned networks like ESPN, or one that includes Fox and Fox-owned networks like FX), so I also miss an episode of the best show on television that no one (but critics) is watching.
This is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing cord-cutters. Live TV viewership is cratering everywhere, it's true. But big chunk of those formerly live viewers catch up via DVR or on-demand video: While a quarter of adults 18-34 head online to watch their shows, according to data from media research firm SymphonyAM, that still leaves 75 percent viewing in a more traditional way. The cord-cutter can't do that, and many cable networks require you to sign in with your cable provider to view their shows on their websites.
For this experiment, I decided not to crib passwords from friends or relatives. But if you don't want to wait to watch your shows online, and it's a choice between borrowing your brother's Comcast login or pirating the episode, go for the former. Watching shows in a way that networks can count and make money from is essential to keeping them in production.
Cable networks' websites often require authentication through a pay TV provider for a variety of reasons, foremost of which is appeasing pay TV operators who are paying the networks sometimes-exorbitant carriage fees, which are worth far more to nets than ad revenue delivered by online eyeballs.
A massive 94.2 million households get some sort of TV package from one of the 13 biggest pay TV providers, which account for 95 percent of the pay TV market, according to the latest data from Leichtman Research Group. Making shows available online to people without a cable subscription (even if they’re ad-supported) so close to the original run date would only encourage further dumping of TV packages, and so it's not uncommon for carriage agreements to include language that requires a waiting period.
The inconvenience is understandable, but no less inconvenient.
An Amazon Fire TV Stick finds its way into my hands. It is, encouragingly, way better than the janky Google dongle (er, “Chromecast”) I dug out of my closet, for which some thoughtful relative shelled out $35 a couple of years ago. The remote lacks the smooth-scroll trackpad that the Apple TV remote has, and you also can't use it to control the volume on your TV. However: Unlike Apple TV, the Amazon Fire TV Stick supports Sling.
Up until now, Sling has been performing pretty admirably. There's the expected lag, and a few buffering bumps. But, discouragingly, the computer app works far more smoothly than the Fire TV Stick app, which takes up to five minutes to figure itself out and load properly and is far more prone to buffering issues.
This is Sling’s big test. The primary reason for tacking HBO onto my package is that Sunday night show with all the Walkers. No, the White Walkers. No, the ice zombies. With the dragons and the gratuitous female nudity.
Yes, "Game of Thrones." Tonight is the Season 6 premiere. A crummy stream is the First-est of First World Problems, but hey, I'm the one paying $15 a month, so expecting a smooth experience doesn't seem out of line.
The stream is mostly a success, though there is a few seconds' worth of skippage. Some measure of comfort can be found in the fact that Sling is not solely a live TV service — you can indeed watch shows from the available channels on demand.
Apparently I haven't cut the cord after all. An email from Time Warner Cable, my former provider, lands in my inbox, indicating I owe them nearly $300 for TV and internet services for the months of April and May, and for the set-top box and modem that they believe are still in my possession. This strikes me as odd, given that I transferred the account to a roommate at the end of March before moving out.
It comes out that TWC shut off service to my former address after sending a letter saying the account transfer had gone through. The new account holder couldn't turn service back on, because TWC told her she had to open a new account of her own. This required TWC to send out a technician with new equipment — who wasn't allowed to take the old equipment back. I had to schlep out to collect my old cable box and modem and haul them to a TWC store.
TWC still attempted to charge me for having the equipment.
This is, of course, why cable companies consistently land at the bottom of customer service satisfaction lists and inspire near-homicidal rage. It's understandable that pay TV companies and their CEOs, like TWC's Rob Marcus, are keen to avoid even the appearance of customer loss — but they didn't actually lose a customer, in this case.
And while creating a labyrinth of miscommunication and fees and surly customer service representatives is one way to keep people from ditching you — would anyone be surprised if TWC actually had a minotaur on the payroll waiting to maul and eat cord-cutters? — it's not exactly effective. That kind of open account with accruing fees actually affects people's credit scores, and the only way I was informed this was occurring was with a bill.
Yes, this experiment was supposed to end after a month, and I've now been without a traditional pay TV package for 59 days. I still don't know when I'll get around to adding TV service, even though I regret not having it installed lo those many weeks ago.
The explanation for this continued pay TV truancy lies not in contentment with a life sans cable, but rather Newton's First Law of Motion, which states that objects in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. The same applies to people without a cable subscription — it’s simple inertia. Somehow, removing the hassle from one's life is itself too much of a hassle.
Or, as a certain segment of my generation likes to put it: ¯_(ツ)_/¯