Why I finally broke down and re-attached the cable TV cord

Live election coverage and live sports may be the only remaining lock the cable networks have on your TV watching habits.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

"You must call and get cable." My wife was firm. "You must call them right now. Do. It."

I was brooding. Politics nights (election results, debates, etc.) have always involved brooding, but about the general state of the nation and my deep disappointment with the current selection of candidates at any given time.

But ever since I cut the cord on cable TV, the brooding has instead been the constant, never-ending frustration of trying to binge watch politics on politics nights.

Thursday night was the debate that broke the camel's back.

Fox News claimed that the debate would be available on FoxNews.com to watch, but 9pm came around and all I got was the "which cable company do you use?" sign-up screen. I switched to the Roku. All I got there was the Fox News logo.

By this time, a dark cloud had formed over my head. This debate was to have Donald Trump back in front of Megyn Kelly -- and that promised to be a far better show than Trump vs. Cruz, Trump vs. Rubio, or even Trump vs. Secretary Clinton. (In actuality, the interaction between Trump and Kelly was civil and almost charming, but the shouting matches among the three unruly boys was sophomoric at best.)

Back to my attempt to watch it play out. All I was able to see was a black box that insisted I pick my cable TV service and log in. I don't (didn't) have cable TV. I had the Internet.

As it turned out, by about 9:40, the Fox News site decided to let me watch the debate. But I had missed 40 minutes. I don't know if it was a browser cookie that didn't update correctly (I tried on Chrome, Firefox, and even, ugh, IE). But whatever it was, I was once again incredibly frustrated by attempting to follow the election coverage online.

I've been making my wife's life hell. It's bad enough that I insist on watching these buffoons on television and she's got to hear them even if she goes into the other room.

It's like second-hand smoke, but with politicians.

But this election season -- the first since I cut the cord -- I've been projecting a withering level of crankiness and dissatisfaction because I can't get my live politics on the Internet without cable TV pay doors and nearly constant service interruptions.

Cutting the cord

Ditching cable service wasn't just about the money. Sure, I like saving money. But it's the principle of the thing. Until election season kicked off in earnest, cutting the cord proved to be a win and as a citizen of the Internet, it seemed that we'd come far enough to get all our media online.

Between HBO Now, Netflix, the commercial-free version of Hulu, and all the stuff available a la carte on iTunes (which is almost everything), we didn't miss any shows we wanted to see, and were were saving more than a hundred bucks a month in the process.

That said, let's discuss the costs. Before cutting the cord, our monthly TV budget (not counting our Internet feed) had been $219.79 per month. That included $146.85 for cable TV service, $32.98 for two TiVos, and $39.96 for two Netflix subscriptions with the DVD service.

We completely nuked the TV services from our cable provider. When Netflix offered users an online account, it meant my wife and I no longer needed our own accounts. Plus, we couldn't recall the last time we actually watched a DVD. So Netflix went from $39.95 down to $9.99 per month for streaming only. And we dumped the Tivos, since they were basically a DVR front-end to cable TV.

That brought us from $219.79 per month down to $9.99 per month. To that we added the commercial-free version of Hulu (worth it!) for $11.99 a month, the wish-there-was-a-commercial-free version of CBS All Access for $5.99 a month, and $14.99 a month for HBO Now (because of Game of Thrones).

So we were at $42.96 per month, a huge savings off of $176.83 of our previous expense level. That gave us a lot of freedom. We'd occasionally buy a complete series on iTunes, but we never spent more than twenty bucks a month, because, frankly, we didn't have that much time to watch TV. My wife recently signed up for Showtime Anytime for $11/month. Even with all of that, roughly another $31 per month, we were saving about $145 per month.

Sling TV and the orange circle of death

But other than on CBSN (disclosure: ZDNet is owned by CBS), which is free, I couldn't get live news coverage on the major channels. I wanted to be able to switch between MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and CBS. I wanted to watch it all. I wanted to see the debates.

So I signed up for Sling TV. That added $20 to my bill, but that didn't matter to me as much as the discovery that Sling TV was terrible. First, it wouldn't let me pause live TV on CNN. It didn't have Fox News. But that wasn't the worst of it. The big problem was that Sling TV couldn't sustain a stream.

It would play for a while and then display an orange loading circle. Then, sometimes it would play some more. Sometimes a reboot on my PC would work. Sometimes switching to the Roku would work. Sometimes nothing would work. The only constant was the constant frustration.

My attempts to watch politics broke down completely for election news coverage. By Thursday night, I had become a twitching, growling, furry ball of pissed-off darkness.

Reattaching the cord

My wife put her foot down. For the sake of the family, she demanded I get cable TV back in the house. So I made the call.

Since I've been talking costs, let's continue the discussion. If I wanted the news channels, which would also include the History Channel, I needed their Standard channel line-up package, which was $41.79. I thought about hooking back up the TiVos, but TiVo service is $14.99 a month -- for a simple listing! By contrast, a DVR from the cable company -- admittedly not as familiar or well-designed as a TiVo -- would be all of four bucks more per month.

The cable guy showed up on Saturday (actually, they rolled two trucks to walk a cable box into my living room and plug in a coax and HDMI cable). There was no charge for the install, so if you hear cable companies complaining about losing money, tell them not to send two guys in two trucks to deliver one small box.

It turns out that two people may not have been enough. As soon as they left, the sound went out on the cable company's DVR. A call to customer service remotely reset it. Then, later, when the first show I'd scheduled to record started recording, the box itself crashed. I'd forgotten how crappy cable box hardware can be. Sigh.

UPDATE: Okay, okay, so I called the cable company on this. You're not going to believe it. The DVR goes into power save mode by default after four hours, when it switches channels and stops recording. Yeah, seriously. Fortunately you can turn it off.

More great project ideas

In any case, here are the final cost numbers. Then we'll talk about what it all means.

I dropped Sling TV -- that's completely their fault. They don't have their act together yet -- and added Standard cable TV service with a DVR. All told, I'm now spending about $119.75 per month, which is clearly more expensive than being completely cable free.

But it's a hybrid solution that seems to be the best of both worlds and is still saving us $100 per month (and that includes random show and series buys on iTunes).

What does it all mean?

First, let's separate two possibly confusing items. Cable-based Internet and cable TV are two different things, even though they're usually provided by the same company. Cable-based Internet has matured and become the de facto home and small business delivery mechanism. I pay $108 per month for Brighthouse Lightning 200 and it's actually pretty darned good.

Cable TV, however, is losing its appeal. Between 2011 and 2015 cable TV penetration dropped from almost 84 percent of households down to 80 percent, while the number of new households increased. By contrast, the number of Netflix subscribers nearly doubled.

If my experience is any indicator (and, in a way, it is), the only thing really keeping customers hooked to their cable TV services is live TV. I often describe myself as a sports fan, it's just that the game I love is politics. But real sports fans are showing far more loyalty to cable TV than any other category.

There's an interesting statistic out of Statistica. Back in 2005, 14 of the top 100 live programs were sports programming. That meant that most people tuned into appointment TV and watched lots of other stuff. But by 2015, that number changed: 93 percent of the 100 programs are live sports events.

I can see why. My only real interest in getting cable TV back was getting to see my "sports" events live. It's not nearly as much fun watching debates and election returns after the fact, or just seeing the scores. For now, the traditional cable networks have a lock on both sports programming and election programming and so cable TV distribution remains something that consumers will buy.

But once Netflix and Amazon and YouTube and Facebook and Hulu follow CBSN's lead and start offering live news programming over the Internet, the FoxNews and CNNs will need to follow suit. Shortly after that, you can bet more sports will move their coverage online. For now, many sports events still get huge licensing fees from the networks, but as the audience moves, so will their lock on hard-wired television.

Once that happens, cable TV subscriptions will fall by far more than four percent.

In the meantime, it sucks that, for this most democratic of activities, you have to pay for hard-wired cable TV service to your home to be able to really keep up with the news and views of the election. Even though cable companies claim you can watch some of their programming on the Internet, I've found they seem to have made only a half-hearted effort to make the experience tolerable.

When you look at how important the choke-hold on live TV is to the cable companies for the survival of their cable TV subscriber business, you can see why they might not be motivated to make it easy for us to use our mobile devices and wireless subscriptions to get at what is now their dominant domain.

Despite my substantial efforts, I've discovered just how hard -- almost impossible -- it is to get a full breadth of political perspective without being a cable TV subscriber. For a democracy, that's sad. For a member of the middle class, that's an inconvenience and an expense.

For a nation already divided among the haves and the have nots, it's essential that all the important news of the election cycle be made available to everyone.

And that means the Internet.

Update: Fixed TiVo pricing typo from $19.99 to $14.99.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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