In (Reluctant) Defense of Cable TV

By  |  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’ll cut the cable cord.
  • Comcast will provide Internet-based access to content that’s appealing enough that I stick with cable. (Its current Xfinity TV Web service has potential, but it’s too clunky and doesn’t have enough stuff I can’t get elsewhere.)
  • I’ll jump ship to a cable alternative such as AT&T’s U-Verse, Verizon’s FiOS, or DirecTV because it does a better job with apps and services for PCs, smartphones, and the iPad than Comcast does.

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…


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15 Comments For This Post

  1. Warai Says:

    I use Netflix and Hulu Plus on my PS3 for nearly all of my TV viewing. What I can't get through instant streaming on these services I wait for on Blu-ray. Although I can't take part in the social aspect of watching new shows that aren't available on Hulu I do get some benefits. For one, Blu-rays have better image and audio quality than HD cable channels and have extras that add a lot of value. I can watch any episode of a show without, or with severely reduced, commercials and without having to set a box to record them. I don't watch sports and don't really care about the social aspect at all, I just want to be entertained after a long day or week. For me this works perfectly. The only things I do miss are channels like Discovery, National Geographic, or the Science Channel. I did enjoy just sitting back, seeing what was on next, and learning about whatever it was.

  2. Jared The Geek Says:

    The fallacy is stating you can't get True Blood and American Idol online. Well American Idol is network TV and available with an antenna. True Blood is a problem but most content is available over the air or online. I buy what is not accessible legitimately that way. I used a Win7 Media Center with a dual tuner HDHomerun and an amplified antenna. It works great.

    Its hard to defend $100 a month for just cable and so much content that is garbage. I have no problem with commercials on my HULU Plus content, they need to get their $ and I know my $10 does not cover that. When AT&T or Surewest really implement MediaRoom and allow an Xbox 360 and Windows 7 PC be used as a set top box and DVR then I will turn it back on. I am sick of paying for a substandard DVR and paying for HD content when its free over the air.

  3. jtdennis Says:

    The big draw that cable still has for me is sports. I know boxes like Roku are getting some deals, but as a college sports fan, it's hard to beat everything that you get with the various ESPN channels and specialty ones like CBS College Sports. Things like are a move in the right direction, but with the fragmented reality of broadcast rights, there will likely never be a solution that fits everyone.

  4. Guest Says:

    For a large number of consumers, the big impediment to dropping "cable" (or satellite) is live sports. The available options, besides pirated feeds, include, an intentionally limited sample, and, a great service you pay a considerable fee for. The NFL is going to make games available online, but for a large fee. Cable is by far a better option, including for HD sports.

  5. ahow628 Says:

    I was doing a little math and determined that if I live in Seattle and want to watch the Colts the 14 times per year that they aren't on in my area, I could spend $85 per trip to the local sports bar and still come out better than spending $100 per month with DirecTV. That doesn't even mention the fact that I would have to sign a 2-year agreement with DirecTV and they have the right to jack my rates at any time. At $85 per trip, I'm just asking for alcohol poisoning.

  6. Bill Says:

    I have cut the cord. I purchased a WD Digital Live box and also subscribe to the Playon service ($30/YEAR-not a typo year not month). It gives us most of the content my family needs but not everything they want 🙂

    This setup is not for the technically-challenged but it works and is worth not getting the $130 bill every month from Comcast.

  7. Dennis Says:

    Hey Harry,

    When people "cut the cable," they don't switch to only Internet TV. lot of your issues with Internet TV can be resolved by supplementing it with an ATSC or ClearQAM signal. Get a TV Tuner card and plug in an antenna or the cable sticking out of your wall into it, and you will get your local news channels live. This solves the News and Continuousness issues. Software (like WMC) can give you the unified UI you are looking for, solving the unified experience issue.

  8. JaredNewman Says:

    My wife and I stopped subscribing to cable when we moved out to California two years ago. At first, it was a luxury we couldn't afford, and since then, we just haven't missed it all that much, between Netflix, over-the-air and PlayOn, not to mention the myriad other ways to be entertained after work, including video games, computers and an iPad.

    As other folks here mention, I miss the sports, but I'm not big enough of a sports junkie to pay $60 per month for ESPN. And now I can watch the Yankees during the best part of the baseball season — the last month or so — for $30 on the Playstation 3.

  9. @jdsweet Says:

    To the author's point about Tivo's lack of on-demand content, Tivo & Cox recently announced a plan to offer Cox's on-demand content directly on the Tivo Premier. Press release (Aug 12th) here:

  10. @tomforemski Says:

    I haven't had cable for four years and pretty much watch whatever I want. Also, I bought a powered antenna from Radio Shack and was amazed at how many HD shows and movies I could get for free.

    My TV diet includes BBC and other UK TV, which is among the best in the world. I get it from a proxy/VPN service,

  11. adger Says:

    I'm always queezy listening to people disclosing their viewing habits, "TV diets", favorite shows, etc. This information is utterly and intrinsically uninteresting. It's like, which hand do you wipe your butt with? We both have to do it and do do it, but the cross-information is not germane to our lives. Lost here is the slow takeover of lives by "media." At the end, will we have wished we watched more TV, regret things on TV we missed?

  12. jerryp941 Says:

    Hello,its absolutely right to take a defense towards cable TV and there must be an initiative should be taken to avoid such disastrous harm. Now a days,in all the public places,there are number of cable TV's available,so,care must be taken to defend as "Care is the Best Defend Policy".
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  13. Todd Shirley Says:

    Well of course the whole premise of this article and discussion is that we need a never-ending continuous stream of "content" dumped into our living room 24/7. I think your "continuousness" argument about sums it up. "… when one program ends, you generally need to take action to start watching something new." Maybe (almost definitely, actually), it's a good thing to have to "take action" after a program ends.

    Like other's, I'm fine with Netflix streaming & DVDs combined with over-the-air. If I can't find something I want to watch, it's a good sign that maybe I should get off my butt and actually do something. Not only does no cable save money, it saves brain cells and gut size!

  14. Chuck Says:

    Cut the cable the right after the FIRST gulf war.

    Love my digital TV and my 20-yr-old radio shack antenna!

    I use netflix and MAYBE we'll get an xbox or wii thing to get netflx on demand. Man, glad I did not get all caught up in that Tivo/dish/digitial-cable fad!

    Long live the Palm VII!


  15. Kevin Says:

    Hook up a Dell Zino to an HDTV, get a digital antennae and you're all set. But one has to realize, that you are turning a "passive" experience into an affirmative experience. For instance, instead of channel surfing to "see whats on", you make a decision to watch something in particular at a time you want to. Once you change your mindset, its easy. Keep concentrating on how much money you spend for stuff you don't watch. As for sports, your antennae will pick up NFL and a lot of baseball and NBA on weekends. Weekday sports, its ESPN 3 (so THAT'S how they play cricket) or the radio.