What the cord cutting naysayers still get wrong

Call me an optimist, but I’ve never been convinced by the idea that cord cutting will leave consumers in worse shape than they were with cable TV.

We’ve heard a lot of arguments to that extent over the years. Cord cutting’s naysayers have told us that streaming TV gives people too many choices, won’t actually save money, will wipe out quality programming, and could even cripple the internet, all to imply that we should be careful about wishing for cable’s decline.

These days, I typically ignore such claims, having debunked them enough times already. But after reading a recent piece by Graeme McMillan at The Verge, which argues that media companies are “accidentally re-creating cable TV,” I want to make one more point that’s often overlooked: Streaming video has given us more to watch than we ever could have hoped for in the cable era, to the point that it’s impossible to keep up. The idea that you must pay for every conceivable streaming service isn’t just wrong, it’s impractical.

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Why a la carte TV still isn't happening

Every so often, I get an email or read a comment online asking why the TV industry won’t just give the people what they want.

As more people abandon cable and satellite TV—or grow up accustomed to life without either—one might think the industry would be open to selling channels individually, or letting customers build their own TV bundles. If such a service existed, surely customers would flock to it and make TV networks richer, right?

Not quite. Over the past few years, TV networks have only become more resistant to breaking up the channels they own, especially as major media companies like Disney and Discovery fatten their channel lineups by acquiring other programmers. They’re not being punished too harshly for it either; while cable and satellite TV subscriptions are spiraling downward, live TV streaming services such as DirecTV Now and Hulu with Live TV have been picking up the slack.

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Relief from cable-box rental fees is coming (but not from Comcast)

Cord-cutting has become so popular that some small cable companies are joining in, trading their own set-top boxes for streaming TV service.

This week, a video delivery company called MobiTV announced that it’s working with more than 50 small cable companies and telcos—covering one million U.S. subscribers—to offer streaming channel bundles in place of traditional TV. The cable companies still offer the actual service, handle the billing, and put their names on the finished product, but MobiTV builds the underlying software and negotiates the requisite streaming rights with TV networks.

The result for consumers is lower costs even if they don’t fully cut the cord. Instead of having to lease expensive cable boxes, they can brisng their own Roku players and Fire TV Sticks to watch and record live television. Dropping the cable box also means customers can set up their televisions anywhere, regardless of whether there’s a cable connection nearby.

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How cord-cutters can deal with data caps

Let's get this out of the way: Home internet providers shouldn't be saddling their customers with data caps. Limiting broadband this way doesn't help with congestion, discourages new technologies such as 4K HDR video, and can ensnare innocent users with undeserved fees when their meters fail. If the home broadband market had more competition, we probably wouldn't have to worry about data caps.

Unfortunately, usage limits have become reality for a growing number of users. Comcast began broadly enforcing a 1TB data cap in 2016, and AT&T followed shortly after. Cox stepped up and expanded its own data-cap enforcement last year, and Verizon is flirting with the idea for its DSL customers, who now face unenforced "usage" guidelines in certain markets.

If you've cut the cord on cable or satellite TV and are facing data caps from your internet provider, all is not lost. Although streaming video can drive up your data use quickly, there are plenty of ways to curb your consumption and avoid running into overage charges. Here are some ideas to consider:

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Streaming video DVR explained

One question I often get about cord cutting is whether it’s possible to record streaming video, like you can with cable or over-the-air television.

This might seem like a straightforward question, but the answer is complicated. Some streaming services do offer DVR, but with restrictions that don’t apply to cable. Others, such as Netflix, don’t allow you to record shows, but offer all their content on demand anyway. And while a workaround exists for streaming services that don’t offer DVR, this brings its own set of trade-offs.

In the interest of having an article to reference whenever someone asks me about streaming DVR in the future, here’s a rundown of all your options:

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Yes, HBO should be more like Netflix

When the New York Times reported earlier this week on a meeting between HBO employees and one of their new overlords at AT&T, the story had all the indicia of corporate greed run amok.

AT&T executive John Stankey, now the head of Warner Media following AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner, reportedly told HBO employees to expect a "tough year" as the venerable network changed direction. Getting "more hours of engagement" would become a priority, Stankey said, because more engagement means "more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions." When Richard Plepler, HBO's chief executive, pointed out that the network already makes money, Stankey agreed, but added, "Just not enough."

Observers pounced on the report as a sign that AT&T would ruin HBO by pushing quantity over quality. Gizmodo's Rhett Jones bemoaned the possibility of "turning the carefully curated, profitable, and beloved HBO into a big-data monster like Netflix." The Atlantic's David Sims perceived Stankey's comments as a threat to HBO's "prestige" sensibility, perhaps bringing about "the end of HBO as we know it." Headlines abound with the possibility that HBO was headed toward ruin.

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DirecTV Now, Sling TV, and PlayStation Vue price hikes: The cost of more bloated bundles

If you've dropped cable or satellite TV in favor of a live TV streaming service, the past week might've brought some bad news.

First, Dish Network announced a $5 per month price hike for its Sling TV Orange service, which is currently the cheapest way to get ESPN without cable. The new price ($25 per month) will apply to new subscribers immediately, and to existing ones in August. (Sling TV Blue plans, which offer NBC- and Fox-owned channels but not ESPN or other Disney-owned channels, still cost $25 per month, and a combined Orange and Blue package still costs $40 per month.)

A few days later, AT&T announced a $5 per month price hike for all DirecTV Now plans from July 26 onward, bringing the base monthly price to $40 for all subscribers. PlayStation Vue subscribers weren't spared, either: All multi-channel Vue plan prices will increase by $5 per month for new subscribers starting July 24, and for current subscribers after July 31, bringing the base price to $45 per month.

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