Political debates, YouTube TV, and why the cable box era is finally over

While you may be one of the growing number of Americans without a cable box, that doesn't necessarily mean you're saving a lot of money.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Watching tv and using remote control

Watching tv and using remote control

Getty Images/iStockphoto

I'm a cord-cutter and have been since early 2015. Back then, it was HBO Now that freed me from the cable box. Once we were able to get Game of Thrones via an internet connection, we were able to ditch our cable box once and for all.

Almost. I was fine watching Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, and HBO Now via the Internet. I'd replaced my fixation with Discovery, the History Channel, and HGTV with YouTube. All was good.

Until it wasn't.

I'd been a happy cord cutter for close to 18 months when the unthinkable happened: I missed one of the 2016 primary debates. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get Fox News to play over the Internet, even though the network itself said it was making the debate available to everyone.

This was the snag. For sports fans and political junkies, access to certain networks required the use of a cable box. Internet streaming was good, but it wasn't yet great. Some programs and events were available to you over the Internet, but only if you had cable TV service.

So, at the very strong suggestion of my wife, I signed up for our local cable TV service and installed a cable box near my TV. I was able, finally, to watch all the debates. All was good once again.

Once the election was over, I cancelled my cable service and blissfully forgot once again about cable TV. 

Until last week.

As you might have heard, the Democrats had their first debate on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Twenty candidates, including a self-help guru, a former tech executive, as well as familiar names like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Entertainment like that doesn't come around all that often. I had to see it.

The debates were broadcast on NBC, and NBC did promise that you could watch them for free via their app and through a couple of other mechanisms. But I didn't want a repeat of the missed 2016 Fox debate (where they, too, promised free access but I couldn't get it to work).

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Since we have a slate of 10 debates coming up from the Dems, plus who knows how many town halls and other good times, I wanted a guarantee I could watch them all.

If we're really, really lucky, we'll get to watch Donald Trump debate former Massachusetts governor William Weld (who is the only other declared GOP candidate).

I wanted it all. I also wanted to jump between the post-debate coverage on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and CBS News. Even though politics isn't quite as much fun as it used to be because everyone is twice as crazy, watching talking heads in the safety of my own home is still an evening well spent.

So let's get back to the cable box. Our new house does not have a cable tap in any of the bedrooms or in the living room. I ran GigE into each room, so we had wired Ethernet, but no coax for a cable box.

As it turns out, you no longer need one. The era of the cable box may be over. Google, Sony, Hulu, and Sling all offer networks and local channels over the Internet. Before you start, yes, I know that HD antennas also provide access to local channels, but I live out in the middle of farmland, too far between major markets to get a good signal.

Last year, I took YouTube TV out for a spin. My wife wanted to watch the live Easter Sunday performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC. (Disclosure: ZDNet is owned by CBS. More disclosure: Despite ZDNet being owned by CBS, and my writing for ZDNet, CBS has never accepted plot advice from me for Star Trek Discovery).

So I signed up for the 7-day test trial of YouTube TV and it mostly impressed me. Video quality was good, it delivered most of the channels we needed, but ultimately I chose to dump it. I didn't need another $40/month expense and it didn't have my favorite channels: History and Discovery.

But now that it's once again time to geek out over 20 wacky politicians on stage, I decided to sign back up to YouTube TV. I could have signed up to one of the others, but I liked the unlimited recording feature of YouTube TV. Unfortunately, in the ensuing year, the fee for the service went up by ten bucks. It's now $50 for the service.

In any case, I watched the debates on YouTube TV with no issues and no hassles. Video quality was good. The only thing I found weird was how closely YouTube TV hews to the traditional cable box look and feel. Its clunky digging through channels, finding programs to record, and setting favorites. In fact, if you try to chose favorite channels on the Roku, the YouTube TV app sends you back to your web browser.

After almost three years away from the clunky time-based interface of cable TV, it was a bit of an uncomfortable reunion.

The times have changed

It used to be that when I moved someplace new, one of the first things I did after turning on power was hook up wired phone service and wired cable TV service. Since I moved away from Florida, that's no longer the case.

Now, I use my iPhone as my only phone and Internet for everything else. With so many streaming services providing what used to be available only through local cable TV operators, there's no need to buy TV service through a dedicated provider.

The era of the cable box is over. This, of course, poses a challenge to local operators, especially once 5G gets up and running nationally. Cable TV operators have generally been able to change their revenue models from cable TV subscriptions to Internet subscriptions. The challenge for wired cable providers will come when 5G provides the same speeds as wired Internet, but without the need for a connection.

We'll see. 5G is not without its problems, so it may not be the holy grail everyone seems to think it will be. In the meantime, I can't wait to see what Marianne Williamson has to say next about love and New Zealand, what Bernie Sanders will shake his hand at, and what Andrew Yang...honestly, I'm curious if he says anything at all. He was real quiet at the last debate.

Are you still using a cable box? Do you subscribe to a line-up of channels through an Internet service? Or are you just getting by watching cute kitten videos and wondering how HBO will survive without Game of Thrones? Let us know in the comments below. 

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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