Rethinking Cord Cutting

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 4, 2015

Because Microsoft has decided to kill off Windows Media Center starting with Windows 10, and I plan to upgrade to Windows 10 on all my machines because it will be free the first year, I will lose my homemade DVR. Using a PC to record TV shows from over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts takes a good deal more work than using the DVR that comes with a cable box. But if you want to give up paying for cable and still record TV shows to watch later, you need something like Windows Media Center to do the job.

antenna

Microsoft’s decision is forcing me to rethink my whole cord cutting approach to television, because I don’t want to go back to Xfinity or U-verse. Basically there are two modes for watching TV:

  • Live – by the schedule
  • Recorded – on demand

Cord cutter means getting TV from the internet or over-the-air broadcasts. Anyone accustomed to using a DVR will feel imprisoned by watching TV live again. Living around the TV schedule is so 20th century. That’s why I had to build my own DVR with Windows Media Center. DVRs let us save TV shows to watch later, skip commercials, pause, and scroll back to replay.

If I give up Windows Media Center I will have to learn to live without a DVR or find another solution.

I hate commercials, so I love skipping over them with a DVR. I could bypass commercials altogether if I gave up broadcast TV and got all my shows from the Roku. Without a DVR I wouldn’t watch broadcast TV. That’s not a possible solution for my wife though. She works out of town, but when she comes home for the weekend she loves TV. She splits her viewing between Netflix and tuning into AntennaTVMeTV, and Movies! – local channels targeted to cheap-ass baby-boomer cord cutters. I should confess I’ve become addicted to watching the old westerns on Grit TV. OTA broadcast channels seem to be popping up all the time, and strangely enough I find more to watch now than when I had cable. Sort of sad, to be stuck in a retro-TV-land, but it reminds me of how TV was when I were growing up.

Yet we can’t live without that modern doohickey, the DVR.

There are other media center software programs I could install and learn to record TV shows, but I’m through with being a do-it-yourselfer. Luckily, since I built my first DVR, several OTA DVRs have come onto the market. The market leader is TiVo, with it’s Roamio OTA, but there’s also ChannelMaster’s DVR+, Simple.TV and the multi-room networked Tablo. Until yesterday I was considering all of them except the Roamio OTA because TiVo charges $15 a month for its on-screen guide. It’s free for the DVR+, and just $4-5 a month for the other two. However, I just read that TiVo was selling it’s heavily subsidized $49 machine for $300 with unlimited access to their guide. That made me rethink the TiVo. Sadly, the $300 deal is over.The Roamio OTA is a 4-tuner device – meaning your can record up to four shows at once – and is considered the nicest to use by most reviewers. The TiVo has slick search features, as well as pause and replay controls. Those same reviewers all said they wouldn’t consider the TiVo with a $15 monthly fee. Obviously TiVo should listen, and since the other devices are already in the $300 ballpark, this could be a no-brainer decision if they offer the $300 deal again. TiVo could sell millions because their product is a broadcast TV watcher dream come true. Cord cutters are cheap, and a $15 monthly fee is too much for us cheapskates. Yet, my wife wants us to think about the TiVo because it’s DVR is equal to one you get with cable.

My current antenna is a RCA outdoor one, but it’s not great. It’s flaky in bad weather, and some channels come in much better than others. I should get a stronger antenna and put it up higher. However, I’m too old for working on my roof. I’ve been searching around Angie’s List and The Yellow Pages looking for TV antenna installers, but can’t find any. That’s annoying. With all this cord cutting going on, there’s good opportunity now for people to start a small business selling and installing antennas and OTA DVRs.

Investing in a great outdoor antenna and buying the Roamio OTA should solve my problem. I’ll be able to take the computer out of the den, and reduce the clutter in my entertainment center. Yet, there is something that urges me to cut the cord to the antenna too. We live in a TCP/IP world, so why not go completely Internet only TV?

$50, plus $15 a month will give us a deluxe broadcast TV setup. Susan and I have to think what we’re actually spending our money for though. To record the NBC Nightly News, CBS Sunday Morning, a few network TV shows we still watch, and to record a bunch of old nostalgic TV shows and movies. I would have included a long list of PBS shows I love, but I can now get them on my Roku through the PBS channel there. I could do all my TV watching through the Roku, but not Susan.

Cord cutters have given up on cable TV, but could they also  give up antenna television? Are we ready for a world with no live television? That’s weird to think about. Television is seldom truly live except for sports, news announcers showing prerecorded news and a rare live broadcast. Sport fans keep the cable companies in business. If live sports came over the Internet they’d be in real trouble. Current TCP/IP networking isn’t really suited for live broadcasting to billions, so they are safe for now. OTA TV does have a fair amount of sports. Enough for millions of cord cutters.

In ten years, maybe even five, things could be very different indeed. Think of how different our technological lives have changed since the year 2000. Should we be watching television like we did in the 1950s – with an antenna on the roof? I have to admit though, broadcast TV is still a viable solution for watching live TV, and it’s free.

JWH

Cable TV–Why Isn’t the Customer Always Right?

Millions of people have dropped cable and satellite TV in the last few years.  Some have done it to save money during a recession, and others because they are tired of ever increasing cable bills, or being forced to buy TV channels the don’t watch.  Recent news reports say the average American is paying $100 a month for TV, that it will be $123 by 2015, and $200 a month by 2020.

Even the people who continue to subscribe to cable and satellite services complain about too many channels, bad service and growing bills.  When will the pay TV industry wake up and think, “Hey, the customer is always right!”  A friend of mine got mad when his cable company charged him $50 to fix his cable service he was paying over $100 a month to use – shouldn’t something you buy be in working order?  He wasn’t ready to quit cable completely, so he took his service down to the $29.95 basic rate.  He’s still mad and thinks of giving up cable completely.

I gave up cable because I got tired of paying for a zillion channels I didn’t watch.  I wanted a la carte pricing but cable companies want to bundle their services.  If you want to know why, look at this chart I got from “Hate Paying for Cable? Here’s Why.”  You’ll probably need to click on the image to see the larger version to read it.  This is an example of what cable/satellite companies pay for each network to get all those channels they offer.

cable-sub-fees

I don’t watch sports, so I would be paying over seven dollars a month for sports channels I don’t watch.  WTF!!!  I recently tried to get U-verse to sell me just Turner Classic Movies (TCM) which this chart says this cabled company pays 26 cents a month per subscriber, but I’d have to pay AT&T $80 a month to watch the one channel I wanted.  Sure I’d get 200 other channels, but I only wanted TCM.

By the way, that chart is old.  A newer article says ESPN is $4.69 and TNT $1.16 (“How ESPN Is Making Your Monthly Cable Bill More and More Expensive”).  This is like going to Target to buy toilet paper and being forced to buy a pair of pants, a quart of motor oil, a bottle of shampoo, a comb, a gallon of Clorox, and 200 other items just to be able to leave the store with butt wipes.

But you can see why cable networks want cable companies to bundle their stations.  Take ESPN.  For each million homes forced to buy ESPN, they contribute $4.69 million per month to ESPN.  However, if we went to a la carte pricing and only 500,000 per million wanted ESPN, and ESPN wanted to make the same amount of money, then they would have to charge $8.38 a month to the people who wanted it.  Which would probably make many of those 500,000 subscribers think even more about if they really wanted ESPN.

If we have a la carte pricing, I doubt Comcast or U-verse would sell me TCM for 26 cents.  But I’d be willing to pay $10 a month for TCM, but I’m not sure how many other TCM fans would be willing to pay that much.  But for a la carte to work, instead of shaking everyone down for 26 cents a month, TCM fans would have to pony up more, maybe a lot more, or TCM would go out of business.

If we had a la carte pricing, many cable stations would go out of business.  Bundled pricing is keeping  these channels afloat.  If the goal is to have hundreds of television networks, bundling is the way to go.  But most cable customers bitterly complain about buying channels they do not want, and it’s the reason why cable bills keep growing and growing.

Cable and satellite companies need to get right by their customers.  What they need to do is provide a base service, say $19.95 that provides a  HD DVR/modem box and the local stations.  HD is standard with free over the air stations, so quit being a dick and charging extra – and it will simplify things for both the customers and you.

DVRs should be standard too.  Quit finding ways to charge extra for what should be standard, that only annoys the customer.   And don’t charge for fixing the system when it’s broke.  We’re renting a service from you, it should be reliable and high quality.  Even at $19.95 a month for the base system with just local channels, pay TV services should be able to make a profit at this level.

Then offer an onscreen menu that customer’s can control from home that shows all the channels, pay-per-view, on-demand channels and other services with the monthly costs for each.  Let them sign up with their clickers – no annoying phone calls.  I bet you can make the same profits or more by pricing the channels individually.  The only downside will be that the total channels will go from 200-300 to maybe 50-100.

Since I gave up cable TV I learned just how good 1 channel can be.  I have a home built DVR (HTPC) and what I mainly record is PBS.  It offers more top quality TV than I can watch.  If you distilled hundreds of channels, with mostly crappy content, into dozens of channels with mostly quality content, the perception of your product will vastly improve.

I think most homes will be happy with 10-20 “a la carte pay” channels.  Having fewer channels makes watching TV less stressful.  To much choice can be painful.  Their cable bill could be as high or higher than it is now, but it would reflect exactly what they wanted.

If such a system was available I’d go back to being a cable subscriber.

In the future there are other changes cable companies could make to make their customers happier.  Get rid of the cable box.  That would reduce clutter and a clicker.  Work with TV manufacturers to make smart TVs work with cable/satellite feeds and develop standards.  DVRs should be built into TVs.  A SSD drive would not take up much space.  It could be user replaceable.  Or make TVs with 128-256gb SSDs built-in, with a slot for customer’s to add an additional drive.

A TV could be built to do TV, Internet, video games and music that uses one clicker plus game controllers.  One cable, from a cable/satellite/broadband company could provide all content.  And build your systems with self-diagnostic awareness so we won’t have the aggravation of feuding with your company over intermittent problems.  There should be no reason to send a cable guy to see what’s wrong.  Your system should know what’s wrong, and if it’s involves something in the house, notify us to pick a time for your guy to come by – otherwise fix the outside stuff without bothering us.

And why fight Netflix – make it part of your lineup.  Right now I have over-the-air stations I use the TV clicker to manage, and then HTPC content, which I use a wireless keyboard, and then Amazon and Netflix through a Roku box with another clicker, and watch Blu-Ray/DVDs with another box and clicker.  Plus I manage sound with a receiver and another clicker.  That’s a HUGE PAIN IN THE ASS!  The next TV I buy should have all that crap built-in, requiring only one clicker.

If Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other Internet TV services can work with TV manufacturers to get their content  built right into the TV, why can’t cable/satellite/broadband companies?  Sorry Roku, but it’s obvious that your 2 ounces of electronics could easily be added to a TV set.  And why not a computer and stereo receiver?  If such integration happens, and TVs are moving that way now, having an external cable box is just stupid.  I’m not an inventor but I can see which way the electronic wind is blowing.

Lastly, Hey TCM, go the Netflix/Hulu Plus route and set up your own Internet TV service.  I’d gladly pay you $9.99 a month, but you might get more subscribers at $4.99 or $7.99.

JWH – 4/15/12

Living Without Cable TV

Because I’m approaching my retirement years, and contemplating living the last third of my life on a fixed income, I’m spending a lot of time examining how I spend my money.  One of my biggest monthly bills I pay is from Comcast.  I get cable TV, Internet and local/long distant phone service from them, so naturally the bill is going to be big.  Even after I retire, I know I’ll want high speed Internet, so I positively have to budget $50 a month for that.  For now, I’m not ready to be one of those people who live a cell phone only lifestyle.  So that leaves the $120 a month for cable to consider. 

I’ve already cut $23.90 from my bill by returning the bedroom cable box/DVR, so I’m down to $96.  My plan is to quit cable entirely as soon as True Blood season 2 wraps up, but I want to explore just what I desire from cable TV and how much is it worth, and what I will miss when it’s shut off.

Pros of Cable TV

  • Watch shows in DVR time
  • Excellent selection
  • Elegant integration of DVR and guide
  • Channel guide
  • Convenient

Cons of Cable TV

  • Cost
  • Hate paying for channels I don’t use
  • Overwhelmed by the choice of too many channels
  • I watch too much TV

Pros of Over the Air TV

  • Free
  • Non-compressed high-definition
  • PBS, ABC, CBS and NBC actually cover most of what I watch
  • Simple – less to worry about
  • Will watch less TV

Cons of Over the Air TV

  • Must watch in real time
  • No channel guide
  • No DVR unless I build one
  • Missing 9 favorite cable channels

The worst downside of free TV is watching in real time.  I could build a Home Theater PC, but I’ve explored that idea and there’s a great deal of aggravation involved.  [Note to television makers:  Invent an elegant but simple to use over-the-air DVR turner that works with an online guide via the Internet – but doesn’t require the show stopping $13 a month subscription like Tivo.  A 1gb model for $199 would be a killer product.]

I’ve also explored the idea of just getting basic cable, but at $50 a month I still get far more channels than I want, and most of my favorite HD ones would be lost.    [Note to Comcast:  Offer over-the-air local HD channels and my favorite HD cable channels listed below, with a simple DVR for $30 a month and I’d stay with cable.  And I think a lot of people I know who don’t get cable would consider it too.  Or this setup with high-speed Internet and voice for $99.95.]

Most folks I talk to, hate cable because they feel cheated by the huge bill and being forced to buy far more than they want.  Cable needs to reinvent itself.  Since everyone is moving to digital reception and digital TVs, offer a basic HD package for $25 a month, and provide a la carte selection of cable channels at $1 for those with commercials, $2 for those like TCM, without commercials, and whatever the premium channels think they are worth, and then see what people really want.  Also offer bundle packages for those folks who like to buy in quantity.

Which Channels Would We Miss the Most?

My favorites are:

  • The Science Channel (wished it was HD)
  • Discovery Channel HD
  • National Geographic HD
  • History Channel HD
  • Turner Classic Movies (wished it was HD)

My wife wants to add:

  • Home and Garden HD
  • TLC HD
  • Food Network HD
  • DIY Network (wished it was HD)

If we had those 9 channels with PBS, ABC, CBS and NBC – and a DVR with channel guide just for those channels we’d be in TV heaven.  Everything else, Susan and I could get on Netflix.  And if the documentaries I love from those first four cable channels were easily available on Netflix, I could live without them too.  Netflix and streaming Netflix could be everything for me with just PBS, ABC, CBS and NBC for random watching.  Those are our lucky 13 channels.  Currently we’re overwhelmed with two digital tiers, a bunch of premium channels and scads of music channels we never even flip through.

Comcast and other cable companies need to study what people really want.  Ever since I wrote “Saving Money on Cable TV and Internet” a bunch of my friends have come up to me and told me they were thinking about the exact same thing.  Everyone I know hates paying a big cable bill for so many channels they don’t want.

Living the Simple Life

Our culture forces everyone into living with information overload.  I’m predicting a movement towards simplifying life.  Even the young will burn out from Twitter and Facebook overload.  Kids feel bad if they don’t have 800 friends in their social networks, but the reality is you can’t have that many friends.  And you can’t watch 200 TV channels, and the Internet is just as overwhelming.  There’s got to be some consolidation.

Because I won’t get the a la cart cable service I want, I’m going back to four TV channels:  PBS, ABC, CBS and NBC.  Maybe this makes me a TV Luddite, maybe this is bad for the economy, and maybe it will even reduce what I get to learn about the world, but it might also be innovative for my lifestyle.  There’s that old saying about your life flashing in front of your eyes when you die, well, too much of the life I will see flashing in front of my eyes will be sedentary in front of a TV.  I regret that.

JWH – 8/29/9