I’ve been without cable for about five years now. In my last year as a subscriber to Time Warner Cable, my package included internet, basic cable and one premium channel (HBO). My monthly tab was $144. I don’t miss it.
Back in 2008, I made the jump to a 37″ Sony Bravia 1080p HD LCD television. Soon after, I got the original Apple TV, which I’ve since upgraded to the current model. As more offerings became available on the Apple TV, like movie rentals and season passes to my favorite shows, and the majority of the offerings on basic cable became less interesting, the $150 monthly tab made less sense. In a cost-cutting experiment, I downgraded my package with Time Warner to internet only. (And when I called to make the downgrade, man did they bludgeon me with incentives to keep my cable subscription. Clearly, “no” means “yes” in Time Warner customers service training.) I haven’t looked back.
Nowadays, my current television structure, with which I’m pretty happy, includes Apple TV, a Wi-Fi Blu-ray player and a digital antenna. Here’s how it all works in my house…
Without cable, I get my broadcast television channels (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and PBS) the old-fashioned way with a modern twist. The digital antenna, which goes into the television’s cable/antenna port, gives me the digital, high-definition broadcast signal that enables me to watch all the broadcast networks in real time like everyone else. In addition to the cost benefit (roughly $30 for the antenna; $0 thereafter), digital antennas provide better picture and sound than even “hi-def” cable signals. The signal coming through the cable wire is compressed, while the broadcast signal coming over the air is uncompressed, yielding clearer video and audio.
Current-season shows on basic and premium cable
Without basic cable, I miss the real-time airing of shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, American Horror Story and other shows on basic cable channels like AMC and FX. Without premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime, I miss shows like Homeland, Girls and Real Time with Bill Maher. For most of these shows, Apple TV (via iTunes) offers season passes for shows for an average price of around $33 for an entire season. As I see it, this structure has only one pitfall – a pitfall far eclipsed by the perks. The pitfall is that you don’t get to see a new episode until the day after its original air date. New episodes of Mad Men, for example, are available for streaming or download on Monday morning, as opposed to Sunday night when the show airs. But in light of the way we watch television now (or later) with things like the DVR, this seems like a minor gripe to me. The upside to the season pass is that the episodes are commercial-free and often accompanied by supplementary material. Each episode of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Killing comes with a five-minute behind-the-scenes mini documentary that can be a lot of fun.
The season pass via Apple TV/iTunes is not perfect. Not all shows, like Real Time with Bill Maher, are available. But it does hit most of my bases pretty well.
Past episodes and seasons on cable and broadcast channels
The big word here is Netflix. I didn’t catch the Breaking Bad train until the show approached its fourth season. By then, seasons one through three were on Netflix, enabling me to binge on the first three seasons of what is arguably one of the best shows in television history. From the fourth season through the last, I sprang for the $30 season passes in iTunes. Netflix has enabled me to binge “catch-up” with other shows, too, like The Walking Dead, Arrested Development and The Killing.
For past episodes on Netflix, I’ve really enjoyed revisiting classic episodes of older shows like Cheers or Saturday Night Live. But here, Netflix has some overlap with another excellent venue for current and vintage television: Hulu Plus.
Since I don’t have DVR service, Hulu Plus provides a way to catch the latest broadcast television episodes of SNL, Modern Family, Revenge or Scandal the day after their original air date. Beyond current “hot” shows, I was also able to dive into The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a show I was far too young to appreciate when its first season originally aired in 1970. Unfortunately, some shows on Hulu Plus are “web only,” which means they can only be watched on a computer. But hopefully Hulu will eventually workaround this rather stupid hurdle.
For the newest home video releases, iTunes (via the “Movies” app on Apple TV) is my go-to. Rental prices range from $.99 to $5.99, depending on how “hot” the title is. And now there is a trend where new theatrical releases are simultaneously available for streaming rental for a premium. From there, I often peruse the offerings in the Netflix movie library, which is mostly a graveyard of B, C, D or straight-to-video titles, although there are some really surprising diamonds in the ruff. (The Hunt for Red October, Working Girl or Elvira, Mistress of the Dark anyone?) And I do have to give Netflix credit in the documentary department, which boasts a rather impressive selection. Hulu Plus has a growing collection of great films in its library, too, most notably the rare, treasured and classic titles from the glorious Criterion Collection.
Being a movie freak, I also own many titles, both digital and on physical disc. Hundreds in all, actually. I have DVDs from the standard-definition days and some prized Criterion Collection special editions on DVD and Blu-ray. These, obviously, I enjoy on the Blu-ray player. As much as I love the fast, immediate gratification enabled by HD streaming on Apple TV, the picture and sound still need some work. To this day, even on HD streaming titles, the gradients of blacks and deep blues are still pixelated. It’s getting better, but it still doesn’t match the superlative picture and sound quality of Blu-ray.
House of Cards, the HBO Go app and the CW…
When Netflix released the first season of House of Cards earlier this year, it changed the game. In light of how we watch television now, it was not only a cunning new content delivery model, but it was also brilliant television. Compelling story, exciting script, stellar direction and thrilling performances by a wonderful cast. As a network, a channel, a studio, a content delivery system, an app or whatever the hell Netflix is, Netflix proved that it could disrupt a dusty model that the big networks have relied on for decades to pimp eyeballs for advertisers. HBO started this disruption in the ’90s with Oz and The Sopranos, but was still a hostage to the premium cable package. Netflix took it further by being completely detached from any cable package, requiring nothing but an internet connection and an extremely affordable monthly subscription fee of $7.99.
As a happy consumer in the Apple ecosystem, I also use an iPad and an iPhone. The HBO Go app is a gorgeous app that provides access to all of HBO’s wonderful original content as well as movies. From the iPad app via AirPlay, the content can be streamed from the iPad into the Apple TV and, thus, into the television. Fabulous, right? Unfortunately, access to the HBO Go app requires an account with a cable provider (and, of course, a subscription to HBO through that provider). The popular (and sort-of illegal) workaround is that you can use a friend’s or family member’s cable account info to access the app. The good news is that HBO is fully aware that people do this and they don’t seem to care. (A sign that their dysfunctional marriage to Time Warner and Comcast is coming to an end? Let’s hope.) The dream scenario is that we can one day be able to independently subscribe to HBO (and the app) without being chained to a cable account, like we currently do with Netflix.
Earlier this month, it was announced that the CW network will be the first network to stream its shows on Apple TV. Not that I care about what’s on the CW (The Vampire Diaries, The Carrie Diaries, Gossip Girl… ). The point is that the CW will be the first network to have a dedicated app on Apple TV’s interface that won’t require a cable account to access all its content, much of which will be ad-supported like a lot of Hulu Plus content. The CW will be taking the leap that other networks will eventually take – a leap that will give them independence from cable companies, letting viewers get what they want how they want it and ultimately take a well-earned piss all over Time Warner and Comcast’s “We Know You Hate Us, but You Know You Need Us” monopoly.
I know there are other ways to enjoy home entertainment without cable. This just happens to be what I do, and it works pretty well for me. I have friends who have had great experiences with the Roku, Xbox and the newest network threat from cord-cutters: Aereo – all of which I applaud for their spiritual middle finger to an over-priced, over-hyped monopoly.
This morning, I asked a friend how much one pays for cable these days. He has Time Warner’s triple-play package, which includes internet, phone and cable with some premium channels, setting him back more than $200 per month. What does he get for that? A bloated selection of useless channels that no one cares about (especially ESPN and its breed of spin-offs, which command a gargantuan fee from cable companies), a phone line that has less and less significance in the smart phone age, and an internet connection that performs like dialup compared to the fiber-optic system in other countries.
In 2012, Glenn Britt, Chairman and C.E.O. of Time Warner Cable received a base salary of $1,250,000, plus stock awards of $3,667,104, plus an option award of $5,164,373, plus an incentive of $6,617,188, plus pension benefits of $141,250, plus reimbursement of fees for financial services of $38,500 and transportation-related benefits of $410,083 related to personal use of the company-owned aircraft ($402,622), and personal use of a Company-provided car and specially trained driver provided for security reasons (based on the cost of the car, the driver’s compensation, fuel and parking and the portion of usage that was personal). In total, Mr. Britt pulled in $17,352,728 last year.*
Now I’m not sure why the chairman and C.E.O. of a cable company needs a specially-trained driver provided for security reasons. But the more I think about it, if I were a Time Warner Cable sucker, I mean “subscriber,” I could think of 200 reasons every month why someone might want to kidnap him and request a ransom of not money but a more flexible subscription system delivered over an industry-standard fiber-optic network at a fair price.
For now, I’ll just cut the cord.
The financial breakdown:
Time Warner (internet only): $66.20/month
Hulu Plus: $7.99/month
MY MONTHLY TOTAL: $82.18
MY YEARLY TOTAL: $986.16
Season Passes over the Year:
Mad Men: $34.99
Breaking Bad: $29.99
The Killing: $29.99
American Horror Story: $31.99
The Walking Dead: $42.99
MY YEARLY SEASON PASS TOTAL: $201.94
Total annual home video cost without cable: $1,188.10 **
Total annual home video cost with Time Warner “Triple Play”: $2,400 ***
* Data from Time Warner Cable’s 2013 proxy statement.
** Does not account for occasional movie rentals or purchases.
*** Calculated by a rounded $200/month after any first-year incentive deals expired. The addition of subscriptions to Netflix and/or Hulu Plus would yield an even higher total.