Friday, November 26, 2010

Not Quite Cutting the Cord

A little while ago, I went through my twice-yearly phase of wanting to cut my cable bill.  Even though I maintain a fairly strong TV watching habit for someone who works full time, cable prices annoy me.  It gets more expensive every year, the quality is uneven, especially for the smaller viewership networks, and thanks to switch digital channel delivery, every once in a while a channel just won't be available.  And while I could defect to a satellite company, that brings its own limitations, and doesn't save much money either.  That leaves the Internet.  This time around, I really took a serious look at it, including calculating costs.  What I found was more interesting than I expected.

How do Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, iTunes Video, streaming sites such as Hulu, and so on compare?  We'll start with cable's strengths: DVR, at-release availability for all broadcast shows, a wide variety of HD channels, and ACC football and basketball.

The American football and basketball bit is the easiest.  If you want to watch those sports at the collegiate level, you have to pay a provider for the ESPN family of networks.  Period.  There currently is no alternative (which is why ESPN is the most expensive cable network).  The NFL is in a similar situation, though they push their own network as well.

Release availability is slowly becoming less and less of an issue.  The rise of the DVR continues to push against the rigor of network scheduling.  I virtually never watch anything the day it airs anymore, and even when I do, I often start it late to speed through commercials.  If you really don't care about watching things right when they are released, the "Netflix plan" is a no-brainer.  All the TV you could want, fairly conveniently, with more and more available on-demand as time passes, for a fraction of a digital cable bill.  All you have to do is hold out until the show is released on the service.  However, one of the things I discovered when looking at the shows I watch was how many of them were free to view a day or a week after air.  (Cable's on-demand programming typically reflects the same spreads.)  These shows are often only around for a limited time, but they are a viable free alternative when you can get them.  The pay video segment, most strongly represented by Amazon and Apple, also makes shows available in similar time frames.  Plus, if your VOD purchases are "buy" rather than "rent" you have eliminated the need for DVD/BluRays as well.  Pay video also tends to be available in higher quality than the free services, and quality matters.

I like High Definition, and not just because it lets me read the game scores without needing my glasses.  When a show is made in HD, I want to watch it in HD.  HD content on the web is almost exclusively 720p, rather than the 1080p you get through more traditional means.  It's something to keep in mind if you are going to be viewing on a large HDTV.

I mentioned before that I had run some numbers.  Let's say you want the best HD quality you can get and you prefer to watch stuff while it's airing, but not necessarily the same day.  Plus, you don't want to have to mess around visiting a dozen different web sites trying to find the shows you are interested in.  If you assume the current upper prices of HD shows on Amazon ($3 per episode) and assume ten shows a year at the American standard twenty-two episodes a season, you end up with a working estimate of $55 per month.  Add in a Netflix subscription and you suddenly aren't saving much money over the cable bill.  Of course, this is just an estimate, and a rather high end one at that since prices vary.  So the viability of going to the net for your TV depends on what you want to get out of it.  Cable remains very competitive thanks to its quality and convenience, but there are more options now than ever before than can save you a little or a bunch, depending on your preferences.

During the research that lead to this ramble, I was quite surprised to see that going without cable is completely and totally a viable option now.  Should I lose my job, as so many of my friends and neighbors have, I will immediately cancel my cable.  But for now, cable still wins in my house.

I don't want to do this, but I can't leave without nodding toward the elephant in the room.  Yes, there are other ways of watching TV via the Internet that I have not mentioned due to their illegality.  And yes, using these methods often result in better viewing experiences than the legal means currently available.  And if I'm going to rant, I also wish the media companies would get the fact that making the FBI warning at the beginning of the DVD unskippable does nothing but annoy their paying customers.  These things aren't likely to change soon, but in truth, we have come a very long way.  You can watch TV from the Internet now, legally and competitively priced.  That's not something that could be said even a few years ago.  And it will continue to improve.  Google TV is currently being resisted by the networks for all the wrong reasons, but it might still succeed in turning the Internet into the world's DVR.  Or perhaps the Apple model will take hold and true a-la-carte subscription TV will arise.  Or maybe Netflix will be the sole distributor of a new show, bypassing the networks to create the new form of independent TV that web series have been hinting at for years.  In any case, the future of entertainment comes through the Internet.  And the revelation is that that isn't a revelation anymore.