For those who’ve been trying to escape cable or satellite TV, the last week brought a lot of doom and gloom.
First, YouTube TV announced its biggest price hike ever, from $50 per month to $65 per month. FuboTV followed suit, raising prices from $55 per month to $60 per month. Sling TV has also hinted at price hikes to come, saying it will lock in today’s rates until August 2021, but only for those who subscribe by August 1. (Sling says it currently has no plans to raise prices within 12 months, despite the offer.) Disney is rumored to be raising prices for ESPN+ as well, from $5 per month to $6 per month.
All this of course prompted the usual wave of hot takes about how the cord-cutting dream is dead. We were promised a la carte TV, a chorus of jaded pundits said, but instead we got a system that looks a lot like cable. (In truth, the expectation of a la carte cable channels has always been unrealistic, but that’s another story.)
Me? I’m not feeling quite so glum. While there’s no sugarcoating the price hikes, cord-cutting only counts as a failed experiment if you ignore all of the good it’s done—and is still doing—for the state of television. In the interest of looking on the bright side, here are some examples of how cord-cutting has made TV meaningfully better.
There’s more to watch than ever
At the end of last year, Variety reported an eye-opening statistic: Netflix alone released more original programming in 2019 than the entire TV industry did in 2005.
Competition from Netflix and other streaming services has led to a boom in original TV, culminating in a record 532 scripted original series last year, according to FX Networks Research. A plurality of those shows are now exclusive to streaming services, and the vast majority don’t require a big TV bundle to watch. We’ve quickly forgotten how cable had become a reality TV wasteland by comparison.
And while new programming is nice, so is ability to conjure practically any old movie or TV show via streaming. Want to binge-watch the entire series of Seinfeld or Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? How about classic Disney movies that once had restricted availability? Grouse all you want about how Friends or The Office switch from one streaming service to another; it wasn’t that long ago that they weren’t available at all, at least not without splurging on DVDs or filling up your entire DVR.
Almost everything’s available on demand now
Speaking of DVR, that’s become a relic for a lot of cord cutters. No longer must you park yourself in front of the TV at designated times or deal with recording schedules. Thanks to on-demand streaming services, you can watch practically anything on a whim. Even some live TV streaming services, such as YouTube TV and Philo, allow users to build up sprawling on-demand catalogs through unlimited cloud DVR space. The decline of appointment viewing is yet another benefit that cord-cutting naysayers too easily take for granted now.
Free TV is back
Before the advent of cable, TV didn’t have any subscription costs, as everything was available from an antenna.
While over-the-air TV is still a great option for cord-cutters, competition among streaming services has also produced a boom in free streaming options. With services like Pluto TV, Tubi, The Roku Channel, Amazon’s IMDb TV, and Crackle, you can supplement paid offerings such as Netflix or use them on their own, reducing your TV bill to zero.
Contracts and sneaky fees don’t apply
“Cable all over again” has a nice ring to it, but services like YouTube TV and Sling TV have one crucial advantage: You can add or drop them at will without tedious customer service calls or sneaky sales tactics that obscure the real price of service. Once you get used to being treated like a customer instead of a fool, it’s hard to go back.
Cable TV has become (sort of) competitive
It took a while, but cable companies have started responding to cord-cutting with their own overdue improvements.
Comcast and Spectrum now let customers use their own streaming devices instead of having to rent cable boxes, and they even have cloud DVR service so you can record live TV. If a cable box is a must, Comcast’s X1 platform has also gotten pretty good, with universal voice search and a guide that lets you browse across different streaming services in one menu. Comcast is even giving away its own Flex streaming boxes to cord-cutters, having realized that no one in their right mind would pay for them.
New movies are hitting home sooner
Direct-to-video used to be a mark of shame for movies that couldn’t cut it in theaters, but the streaming wars are changing that dynamic. Netflix has been bringing great movies like Da 5 Bloods and Okja straight to home viewers, and has offered only brief, limited theatrical runs for others, such as The Irishman (to qualify for industry award consideration, such as the Oscars).
The coronavirus is now accelerating the trend. Disney has brought movies like Hamilton and Frozen 2 straight to Disney+, while NBCUniversal’s Trolls World Tour became an on-demand hit after skipping theaters. Studios now realize they don’t need theatrical release windows to succeed, especially not when they have their own streaming services to promote.
Commercials are no longer necessary
I recently wrote an entire column about this, so I won’t rehash the whole thing here, but cord-cutting has turned ad-free viewing into the rule rather than the exception for TV. With no ads on Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Disney+, and many other services, dipping back into cable can seem downright antiquated.
Over-the-air TV has improved
Recording broadcast channels from an antenna used to require elaborate home theater PC setups, with Windows Media Center software, USB or PCI Express tuners, and special extender boxes.
In the cord-cutting era, over-the-air DVR options have blossomed. Nuvyyo’s Tablo and Amazon’s Fire TV Recast offer much simpler ways to watch broadcast TV on any device, while Plex and Channels DVR are better DIY solutions than Windows Media Center ever was, with automatic ad skipping and powerful DVR controls built in. Even if you don’t want to record broadcast channels, smart TVs from Roku and Amazon give you rich grid guides and the ability to pause or rewind live TV.
You control your spending
Even without true a la carte TV, cord-cutting affords a level of control that wasn’t possible in the cable era. A decade ago, watching the best shows on TV used to require a full-sized bundle along with premium add-ons such as HBO. If you didn’t want to spend upwards of $80 per month on TV and weren’t willing to commit piracy, you simply missed out on what everyone was talking about.
Now, there’s a whole range of prices you can pay for TV, from free to cheap to extremely expensive. While you’ll still have to spend a lot for certain things—live sports, most notably—you won’t be starved for content if you don’t. The overly rosy vision some folks had of cord-cutting may be dead, but the reality still beats what we had with cable.
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