The Cord-Cutters Dilemma

January 13th, 2015

In a recent article from USA Today tech columnist, Edward Baig, it was reported that only 55% of Millennials own a TV set. That may come as a surprise to those of us who are at least a little older, or in my case, a lot older. I recall when I was in my 20s, I couldn’t wait to have a TV set. Indeed, my mom sent one as a present shortly after I moved to a new apartment when I was a mere lad of 22. It wasn’t too many years after that when I subscribed to one of the early cable TV systems since, at the time, I lived far from any local stations.

Yet my son, age 28, hasn’t had a TV set in his Madrid apartment since a roommate, who did have one that he shared, departed. These days, he uses his 2008 black MacBook to watch TV streams from Netflix and other services. When I asked him if he intended to buy a new TV, or any TV, he said it wasn’t very high on his list of priorities.

What this appears to indicate is that the age of the average cable or satellite customer is clearly increasing. Traditional broadcast stations are reaching declining audiences. The viewing level achieved by a successful show nowadays would have been totally inadequate five or ten years ago. Since the TV networks also have a number of cable stations in their mix, and the way stations are organized on a cable or satellite system, the distinction between broadcast and cable-only has not only blurred but disappeared for most of you.

So it doesn’t matter if I watch a show on NBC or a cable channel owned by Comcast/NBC, such as USA Network or SyFy. For all practical purposes, the viewing experience, complete with commercials, is essentially the same, although cable content may be a tad more explicit. If I’m willing to pay for a premium channel, such as HBO or Showtime, I have the privilege of watching fare uninterrupted by the ads and without the content restrictions mandated for over-the-air broadcasts via the FCC.

Those who want to cut the cord free themselves of cable or satellite — and the high fees they charge. They have gone to such streaming services as Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus and, of course, Netflix. Indeed, Netflix has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to produce exclusive content, such as “House of Cards,” which is almost always in contention for awards. Indeed, star and producer Kevin Spacey this past weekend won the Golden Globes award for best actor in a TV drama. The huge audience of this provocative show clearly indicates the potential for streaming video.

I remember when I used to rent DVDs from Netflix, at least until they agreed to enforce the 30-day delays, mandated by the entertainment companies, for releasing new movies.

When you’re not attached to the traditional cable/satellite system, you have loads of options, but also the potential for loads of confusion, although the situation is evolving.

So last week Dish Network, a satellite system, announced a low-cost Sling TV video streaming service that would include a small number of channels, including Disney’s ESPN, for download to your computer, mobile gadget, and some set-top boxes. But not Apple TV for now. Dish clearly realizes that there’s a sizable untapped audience for such services out there, customers who would never subscribe to their satellite network.

You can pretty much get most of the shows you want if you carefully select a few of these services, including Apple’s iTunes for rentals and purchases. But if you want to watch your local terrestrial stations, you still have to install a traditional TV antenna. And if you live too far from the local stations to get a decent signal, you may consider subscribing to the cheapest cable/satellite plan. Suddenly you’re back where you started.

The real problem I have with streaming is that, for it to provide the depth of content you want, you have to subscribe to at least several services. In trying to find the shows you want, you are forced to contend with a number of different apps and different interfaces. Apple TV makes no effort to consolidate this clutter, except to allow you to only display the channels you want to watch. Roku offers 1,200 or more (the list grows almost daily), but can search among all of them to find specific movies or TV shows, after which it presents you with a list. If you want to rent a movie, such as “Guardians of the Galaxy,” you may find it listed on several services, but each requires a separate account, and a separate payment.

Confusing? You bet!

You don’t even need a set-top box to get the major streaming services. Most new TV sets are “connected” or “smart” devices that include the very same services. I can receive Netflix on an Apple TV, Roku 3, plus my VIZIO TV set and Blu-ray player.

This, to me, is an outrageous situation. I can well understand why Tim Cook has remarked, over and over again, that he feels he’s gone back in time when he enters his living room and has to cope with this mess to find the shows he wants. Apple holds the promise of a solution, but Apple TV remains essentially untouched for now. Well, except for having more channels and more clutter.

While I realize the streaming networks want to brand and customize their content, all they are doing is confusing their customers. Once you add more than one or two, simplicity goes out the window. Can Apple find a solution that makes cord-cutting an easy, uncluttered experience, which just works? Would an Apple TV become a TiVO alternative, meaning a simplified, elegant front end for your cable or satellite account?

What can Apple do to make TV viewing simple and straightforward not just for young people, but for anyone? It almost makes me pine for the long-ago days when I lived in New York City and had seven stations from which to choose.

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6 Responses to “The Cord-Cutters Dilemma”

  1. DK Jones says:

    I cut the cord over 5 years ago and have no regrets. I don’t have to watch any show in real time and the cost for my ?every premium and whatever channel is available in HD” plan would have ballooned by now to about $140.00/month. I have a 2006 iMac connected to my big screen and 5.1 AVR, another in my MBR and I use my 13″ MacBook Pro as well. I can find and watch pretty much anything I want and only have to pay for my internet which is only $50.00/month so I’m definitely coming out ahead. BTW, I’m well beyond the age of any millenial.

    • @DK Jones, I continue to evaluate my needs and the stations I watch. My ideal package would include local stations, USA Network, SyFy, TNT, BBC America, FX, Ion and perhaps AMC, along with Showtime, HBO and Cinemax. I can get my Pay-Per-View diet, such as it is, served via iTunes.

      But there is really no truly affordable package with all these, and not the hundreds of stations I’ll never watch, ever.


  2. DJ says:

    I feel like the cord-cutters today are enjoying a kind of Edenic pre-“tragedy of the commons” wherein, precisely because most people haven’t yet cut off their cable service, they can pay only the internet portion of the cable bill and essentially be subsidized by the rest of us. I don’t resent them for this — but I tend to assume that if the majority of TV consumption switches to nontraditional services, the price of the internet will go up accordingly to make up for the lost revenue, and we’ll be back where we started.

  3. bastion says:

    I cut cox cable TV and phone a year ago. It saves me $60 a month and I have never felt deprived. I replaced the phone with a $3 a month ooma box and get 40 stations using an HD antenna with a $40 digital TV recording box for watching network and local programing. CableTV is too expensive and continually has price increases. All of us would be more productive and healthier if we simply turn the TV off more. Hats off to our youth who see less need for a TV 🙂

    • @bastion, Ah yes, Cox. They actually offered a promising two-year deal for me to ditch CenturyLink, notorious for horrible customer support, and DirecTV. The deal covers broadband and TV, but nothing near the top-of-the-line. My TV needs are fairly modest, and I stick with a handful of stations, as I said above. So I’m inclined to take the jump, particularly since my discount deal with CenturyLink is ending and they don’t seem interested in renewing.


  4. Wouldn't You Like to Know says:

    We would cut the cord in the blink of an eye if it weren’t for sports programming. Unfortunately, while there are streaming services available, instances like the MLB network literally won’t let you stream games if you IP address in local to the team you want to watch.

    Until someone can wrangle that business model away, it’s going to be hard for us to foresee a la carte viewing.

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