For millions of cord cutters, cable TV fades to black
CINCINNATI — For Seth Holt, ditching cable was a matter of principle.
“I feel like cable is the one company that punishes loyalty,” said Holt, 33, of Pleasant Ridge. “With every cable company, my bill continues to go up the longer I am a customer. Anywhere else, be it Kroger or at hotels or with airlines, I’m rewarded the longer I stay a customer.”
So when Holt and his wife, Genevieve, moved into a new house two years ago, they didn’t bring DirecTV and its $100 monthly bill with them. Instead, they joined the estimated 7.6 million U.S. households that have left pay television behind.
The number of pay-TV defectors is steadily rising: About 6.5 percent of households nationwide have cut the cord, up slightly from 4.5 percent in 2010, according to research by Experian Marketing Services. (Yes, the label is a slight misnomer, as most “cord cutters” do still deal with some actual cords.) Nearly one-fifth of Americans who have working Netflix or Hulu Plus accounts don’t subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service.
Michael Greeson, co-founder and director of research for the Diffusion Group, has been tracking cord-cutting trends since 2007. For the past several years, his surveys have consistently shown that about 15 percent of adult broadband users who subscribe to a pay-TV service are considering ditching it within the next six months.
That more people aren’t jumping ship is likely thanks to cable operators’ aggressively working to keep subscribers when they call to cancel. They’re offering quiet deals that their websites don’t advertise in hopes of at least converting a would-be cord cutter into what’s called a “cord shaver” — someone who scales down his or her service but doesn’t bail on cable entirely.
“If it were not for operators’ jumping on this and the economy coming back, those numbers could be a lot larger now,” Greeson said. “With cord cutting, we’re not headed toward a mass exodus.”
Still, a prediction Greeson made in 2012 is on track to prove true: The number of U.S. broadband subscribers is poised to exceed the number of pay-TV subscribers by mid-2015. Meanwhile, the number of Netflix subscribers is growing, having passed the 50 million mark last month.
“We’re seeing a greater number of consumers finding content that they care about through online services,” said Mark Ely, CEO of Simple.TV, one of the products that’s emerged for cord cutters to watch and record free channels such as NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and PBS.
Jumping aboard the trend isn’t necessarily easy. As cord cutters have gained in numbers, more and more products have been introduced to fill holes left by cable’s absence and to accommodate new services that have sprouted.
All the products can get overwhelming, said Brittany Walker, 29, who lives in Crescent Springs. She and her husband, Chris, ditched cable two years ago — well, mostly. Every spring, they sign back up just long enough to watch HBO’s “Game of Thrones” as it airs. After the finale, they quit again.
“My husband’s read all of those books. There’s no way he’s going to wait a year” for the season to appear on Netflix, Walker said. They still watch the show over a streaming device rather than through their cable box, she added. The couple has Chromecast by Google, as well as Roku and Apple TV.
“Don’t get overwhelmed by all the boxes,” Walker advised. “Know that you have options, but try not to get overwhelmed by them.”
Then there’s the cord cutter’s biggest obstacle: sports. Chris Knight, 45, of Greenhills ditched cable and tried to fill his need for Cincinnati Reds games by subscribing to MLB.TV for $25 a month. Problem was, home games were blacked out for exclusivity reasons, so Knight returned to cable.
David Caddell, 28, of Milford, had a similar struggle with NFL games. Instead of re-subscribing to cable, he scoured online forums such as Reddit until he found a suitable workaround that he said is legal but would likely be frowned upon by NFL bigwigs.
Holt, who’s cut his monthly TV-related expenses in half since ditching his dish, usually hits a bar or a friend’s house to watch football and said the inconvenience is worth the tradeoff. He and his wife now watch TV “more intentionally,” he said, and channel surf much less.
“We spend more nights in our living room reading and listening to music than we do watching television,” he said. “I probably enjoy my evenings more.”
As for people considering making the cut, Holt said it isn’t for everyone.
“If you’re happy with your service and think you’re getting a fair price, good for you. Stay,” he said. “But if you’re like we were and have 200 channels when you’re only maybe watching five, it’s actually really easy to switch. You don’t have to be super technical and IT-minded to get it to work.”
Your New TV Guide
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Easily the most difficult part of making the transition from cable subscriber to cord cutter is deciding which products and services you need. Here’s a rundown of some of the most popular among cord cutters. Note: The Cincinnati Enquirer wasn’t paid to mention any of these.
One of the most common misconceptions about cutting the cord is the mistaken belief that you’ll lose basic channels such as NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox, said Laura Slater, spokeswoman for Nuvyyo, which makes the Tablo over-the-air DVR. This just isn’t true. You need to get an over-the-air antenna (also called an off-air antenna), but it doesn’t have to be fancy. Even those rabbit-ear contraptions from your childhood could work, though today’s versions are typically much sleeker and can amplify signals to ensure you’re getting as many channels as possible. (Mohu makes some popular thin ones.)
Simple.TV or Tablo
These take the local channels you’re able to get and shoot them to your devices — your smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc. For a subscription fee, they also let you digitally record those channels so you’re not stuck watching your network TV shows live like a schmuck. (Who does that anymore, anyway?) Another option: TiVo Roamio.
This is a streaming media product that shoots a cable signal over the Internet to a remote device. Slingbox is a brand, and there are other devices that do what it does. The generic term for that shooting signal is called “placeshifting.” For people with cable, this is useful because you can watch “The Walking Dead” on your cellphone at work. For cord cutters, things get interesting: You can ask a cable-subscribing friend to let you sling his signal to your home TV and watch the zombies feast as well. It’s legal because you can sling only one signal to one device.
Whoopsie. You might have heard of this one, but it’s been ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court. Like Simple.TV, Aereo captured all of those free over-the-air signals and let people record and watch them on a virtual DVR. Aereo says it simply replaced a local antenna with a cloud-based one, but broadcasters argued that the service was charging a monthly fee for content that it didn’t own and was getting for free.
These include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Redbox and Amazon Prime, to name a few. They all cost a subscription fee – less than $10 a month for each of the first three, while Amazon Prime is $99 a year. For TV fans, Netflix and Hulu Plus are often deemed necessities. Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play allow you to buy subscriptions to some shows that aren’t on network channels (current seasons of the FX show “The Bridge,” for example). Redbox is for games and movies.
Streaming media, or set-top, box
You can stream the premium services listed above on your phones and tablets, but to watch them old-school on a television set, you need either a set-top box or a smart TV. Smart TVs have many of the apps built in already, so you just activate your subscriptions and get started. The set-top boxes turn any TV into a smart TV. Deciding from among the many boxes can feel daunting, as they each have pros and cons. Among the most popular: Roku and Apple TV. (A new entry to the field is Amazon Fire TV.)
Roku seems to have an edge over others in part because it has so many built-in entertainment channels – it touts more than 1,500 to Apple TV’s 30-something – and its interface is generally praised as being very user-friendly. These devices typically cost about $100, which is a one-time fee. There’s no ongoing subscription for Roku or Apple TV, but Amazon Fire TV is basically useless without Amazon Prime.
What about sports?
Sports coverage remains the biggest obstacle for the wannabe cord cutter. Take Major League Baseball: MLB offers an app called MLB.TV, so fans could theoretically pay $25 a month to watch games. But there’s a catch: Home games are often blacked out for exclusivity reasons. So if you’re a Reds fan, you can’t watch your home team’s home games. This scenario plays out with every major sport. There aren’t many legal ways around it, though if you dig deep enough you can find some lesser-known options. One example is HockeyStreams.com, a Dutch outfit that costs about $110 a year and doesn’t black out local games. (NHL GameCenter LIVE costs about $160 and does impose blackouts.) Football fans have it the hardest because DirecTV makes standalone subscriptions to its NFL Sunday Ticket product available only to people who “live in a select apartment building, attend a select university, or live in select metro areas.” And even those lucky enough to be able to subscribe still have to endure local blackouts.