I’d like to cut the cord. It sounds fun! I picture myself wielding cartoonishly large gardening shears, poised to sever the nearest coaxial cable. I rejoice in the thought of my newfound freedom, of sending my Charter Spectrum account to that great big cancellation form in the sky. And then, the very instant I allow myself to picture what life looks like after that figurative snip, my reverie comes crashing down.
The long-promised future of television is becoming the present at an ever-accelerating pace. Last week, Disney announced it would launch an ESPN streaming service next year, and another for Disney-prime in 2019. This week, YouTube trumpeted a major expansion of YouTube TV, its live-streaming offering. At this point, you can also get live television from Sling TV, Hulu, DirecTV Now, and PlayStation. You’ve already got Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. You can watch specialized content from Crunchyroll (anime), Screambox (horror), and the WWE (wrasslin’). You can even mess with whatever’s going on in those third-tier Roku channels.
Unless you’re a rabid Seeso fan—NBC will shutter the comedy-focused streaming service by the end of the year—the choice part of the future of TV has shaped up quite nicely. You can get HBO with out cable. Also CBS, for reasons still unknown. Soon you’ll be able to get ESPN. And then Disney itself will go streaming in 2019. You can subscribe to so many things! And then, the flip side: You have to subscribe to so many things!
What I mean to say is this: Cutting the cord is absolutely right for some people. Lots of people, maybe. But it’s not that cheap, and it’s not that easy, and there’s not much hope of improvement on either front any time soon.
Follow the Money
Not to turn this into a math experiment, but let’s consider cost. Assuming you’re looking for a cord replacement, not abandoning live television altogether, you’re going to need a service that bundles together a handful of channels and blips them to your house over the internet.
The cheapest way you can accomplish this is to pay Sling TV $20 per month, for which you get 29 channels. That sounds not so bad, and certainly less than your cable bill. But! Sling Orange limits you to a single stream. If you’re in a household with others, you’ll probably want Sling Blue, which offers multiple streams and 43 channels for $25 per month. But! Sling Orange and Sling Blue have different channel lineups (ESPN is on Orange, not Blue, while Orange lacks FX, Bravo and any locals). For full coverage, you can subscribe to both for $40. But! Have kids? You’ll want the Kids Extra package for another $5 per month. Love ESPNU? Grab that $5 per month sports package. HBO? $15 per month, please. Presto, you’re up to $65 per month. But! Don’t forget the extra $5 for a cloud-based DVR. Plus the high-speed internet service that you need to keep your stream from buffering, which, by the way, it’ll do anyway.
That’s not to pick on Sling TV, specifically. But paying $70 to quit cable feels like smoking a pack of Parliaments to quit Marlboro Lights.
You run into similar situations across the board, whether it’s a higher base rate, or a limited premium selection, or the absence of local programming altogether. It turns out, oddly enough, that things cost money, whether you access those things through traditional cable packages or through a modem provided to you by a traditional cable operator.
In fact, it’s worse than that. Even things that are supposed to be free, namely broadcast television, somehow wind up costing extra in 2017. CBS wants you to pay $6 per month for CBS All Access, a streaming service that largely comprises the same shows you can watch on CBS itself for free, either through your cable company or with an antenna. It’s able to do so because it’s hiding shows with devout fan bases—a new Star Trek series and a spinoff of The Good Wife behind a paywall instead of sending it out over the airwaves.
If television today is an à la carte menu, All Access is tap water that costs extra because a bar back dropped a lemon in it. I do not want to eat at that restaurant! I’ll stick with the buffet.
Ease of Use
It’s not just about the money. You can absolutely, without question, get a cheaper streaming plan than you can a cable plan, if you’re willing to live with gaps in your channel lineup.
What I’m more worried about, though, is gaps in the experience. Or maybe potholes is a better word. Any streaming service that’s not on BAMTech—the company that underpins MLB.tv, HBO Now, and WWE, among others, which Disney this month took a majority stake in—still suffers sputters and stutters, especially during appointment television. The’ve all gotten better; it’s hard to say that any of them has gotten great.
Paying $70 to quit cable feels like smoking a pack of Parliaments to quit Marlboro Lights.
Then there’s the issue of local programming, bearers of the major networks shows and the local news and awkward Today patter. Because local stations often aren’t owned by the broadcasters themselves, the rights to stream them come as a patchwork. The safe assumption for most people is that you can’t get a full complement of local stations without an antenna, which requires living with an antenna on your wall, and an over-the-air DVR setup that’s more complicated than it’s worth.
Credit to YouTube TV, at least, for only opening in markets where it has secured rights to three out of four—among NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox—local stations. However, even after its recent big expansion, half the country can’t still access YouTube TV.
And then fast forward a few years, as more networks offer standalone streaming options. What now takes a quick flip through one set-top box menu would then take switching apps, essentially, navigating different interfaces, hunting down shows rather than discovering gems that just happen to be on. You already do this when you hop over to Netflix. Imagine doing it for everything.
I don’t say any of this gladly. I pay too much for cable, and the Charter Spectrum interface feels barely evolved from War Games-era design.
But bundling cable with my internet bill makes both a little cheaper. Knowing that all the channels I might want to watch will not only be there, but will actually function, makes for one less thing to worry about, one less annoyance to dread.
My traditional cable service has also managed to evolve just enough that I have some hope for its future; Charter has a Roku app, so I can still get that live-streaming experience—and I don’t have to rent extra cable boxes. It’s a great reminder of how convenient streaming television can be, and also how clunky. I want Buffy, not buffering.
I realize that these make for some tepid arguments in favor of a traditional cable subscription. I’m not convinced stronger ones exist. But I am certain that it passes the only test that matters: It beats the alternative. In fact, cord-cutting’s not even close to cable. But if it ever gets the point that it is? I’ve got my gardening shears at the ready.