By Harry McCracken | Monday, August 23, 2010 at 11:26 am
The New York Times’ Matt Richtel and Brian Stelter have a nice story today on the threat posed to traditional cable TV by free and low-cost Internet TV. Despite the growing sophistication of Web service, Americans still haven’t started cutting the cable cord in droves. Richtel and Stelter point to popular content that’s not available (legally) online–such as American Idol and True Blood–as a primary explanation for cable’s continued viability.
I’ve been writing about the idea of dumping cable for a long time and am instinctively drawn to it…but I haven’t done it. In our household, we’re heavy watchers of Netflix on Demand via a Roku box. We also watch Hulu and occasionally partake of movies and TV on iTunes and Amazon on Demand. But we still consume plenty for Comcast Xfinity cable TV. (For that matter, we also buy DVDs, and I’ve been known to pull out VHS tapes.)
Here’s what Internet TV still lacks, and why I still give Comcast quite a bit of money each month even though I watch maybe .00005% of the programming I’m paying for and happily survive without watching American Idol and True Blood:
A unified experience. Actually, Comcast’s remote control makes me violently angry every time I try to use it, so the unified experience in question is my TiVo HD. It’s nice to go to one place to get access to all the TV shows and movies I pay Comcast for. By contrast, watching stuff online still requires figuring out what’s available where and using different interfaces depending on what I’m watching and whom I’m getting it from.
One piece of hardware for everything. In my case it’s a TiVo with a CableCard; in yours it might be the set-top box you get from your cable company, DirecTV, or Dish Network. All of them provide access to all the live content provided by your cable or satellite provider. (I say “live” because TiVo, annoyingly, is incompatible with cable companies’ on-demand services.) But even a cool Internet TV box such as Roku gives you much of the TV and movies you might want but not all of them–most notably, Roku lacks access to all the current TV shows that are available primarily through Hulu. (The only “Internet TV boxes” that offer comprehensive access to content are PCs and Macs.)
Continuousness. I’m not sure if that’s a word, but I know it’s real: If you turn on cable and leave it on a channel and just keep watching, you’ll always get something without having to make additional decisions. And if the channel you’re watching is a specialty venue such as the Food Network, there’s a good chance that the something you get will be something you want to watch. Web-based TV still doesn’t lend itself so well to couch-potato lethargy–when one program ends, you generally need to take action to start watching something new.
News. When great big events happen–be they predictable ones like elections or unexpected ones such as the deaths of celebrities–I like to be able to gorge on coverage and flip between the major networks and all-news networks. You can’t do that on the Web.
Most of cable’s advantages over the Internet feel temporary–and, in the case of shows that aren’t available online, somewhat artificial. I suspect that one of three things will happen in the next eighteen months or so:
I make no predictions about which of these scenarios will pan out, and I don’t guarantee that I won’t write another post in early 2012 explaining why I’m still paying Comcast for a service I’d love to do without. In the meantime, I’d love to hear how you’re doing your TV watching these days…