It seemed like a fitting time to make a change: If Jon Stewart was going to retire from The Daily Show after more than 16 years, we were going to cancel our cable television subscription.
And so we did. Last month, I walked our comically bulky cable box into the Time Warner Cable store on West 23rd Street in Manhattan and cut the cord. We remain internet customers, but are no longer subscribing to a bundle of TV channels we barely watched, a user interface that remains stubbornly unusable, and an overall experience that simply was no longer worth over $100 per month.
My wife and I had toyed with the idea for a while. But then it all happened quickly: Mad Men was over, David Letterman retired, The Daily Show was switching hands. We still watch plenty of HBO shows, but HBO just launched a streaming service that, for the first time, doesn’t require a cable subscription. That was it, we were done.
This is hardly a novel concept—in fact, I’ve essentially written this piece once before. I first canceled cable in 2008, proudly becoming a “Hulu household.”
“The math is simple,” I wrote at the happily employed-but-not-swimming-in-cash age of 25. “My $80 cable bill adds up to $960 a year.”
But that experiment didn’t last very long. In 2010, with a little more disposable income and a comfortable cohabitation situation, my now-wife and I caved and re-subscribed to cable.
“Maybe I’m just getting older and more willing to pay a little extra for high quality home entertainment,” I wrote.
And that’s what has changed the most dramatically since then: the “high quality home entertainment” part. Over the past few years, like many people, we’ve watched an increasing percentage of original “television” produced and distributed by services that have nothing to do with a cable subscription, namely Netflix and Amazon. We are watching via a small streaming-media box that the cable industry could only dream of creating, using the fast internet connection provided by Time Warner Cable.
It works pretty well. And now we can get HBO, too!
Meanwhile, the pay TV industry has done very little to improve the value of its service, especially relative to how much progress the competition has made.
- Its much-lauded ”TV Everywhere” concept, which was supposed to let you log in with your account and access lots of video all over the internet, is a dud. It’s hard to set up and often doesn’t work, seemingly because the video provider didn’t have the right agreement with the cable provider. Thanks!
- The cable-box software and on-demand interface—an area where cable should have provided real, “free” competition to streaming services—is still horrendous. (Comcast, the largest US cable provider, has actually done some decent work with its X1 system, but it’s not available here in New York.) So even if we had cable, we would still need Netflix and Hulu.
- The quality of programming on traditional pay TV hasn’t improved, relative to the stuff on Netflix and the like. The shows we loved the most—and made a point to watch live—are gone. And the shows we’re increasingly drawn to aren’t exclusive to cable.
Important caveat: We don’t watch a lot of live sports beyond baseball streaming. That’s still a strong selling point for pay TV services, though even the sports juggernaut ESPN suddenly seems vulnerable. There’s only so much people will pay for just sports.
And it’s not that we wouldn’t consider some sort of “TV” subscription package, such as the one Apple is supposedly working on. But it’s hard to imagine paying $100+ per month for jumbo cable again. It finally seems like that time has passed, for good.