Reporter's Notebook: Diary of My Summer as a Cord Cutter

A THR writer turns his back on Big Cable — but not without aggressive password sharing.

Death, divorce and moving are often referred to as the three most traumatic events that a human can endure. I've always preferred to take my suffering in bulk, like any self-respecting Midwesterner, so I parlayed a recent apartment switch into pulling the trigger on a long-gestating separation. I finally cut the cord.

Summer is the perfect opportunity to test drive this new lifestyle. Scripted television series are at a relative minimum. Professional sports, ignoring the Olympics for a moment, are almost nonexistent. And there's the not-so-small matter that the weeks between July 4 and Labor Day are best spent outside. That's not to say that this was an easy decision. It's one I made after more than a year of thoughtful consideration. Arguments against this move, a controversial one among my friends and colleagues, included my chemical dependency on House Hunters, an admittedly misguided affection for cable news and the ever-popular "Don't you write about television for a living?" (I like to think of this job as a bit more nuanced, but I appreciate the feedback.)

Unfortunately, you can't just ghost the Big Bundle. Canceling a cable subscription is one of the more proactive decisions a grown consumer can make. There's a long, awkward phone call, the reluctant payment of any lingering balance and the punishing tedium of packing up and shipping one (or more!) now-useless boxes. That's what I had to do when severing my fiber-optic bonds with Frontier Communications (née Verizon Fios), a company for which I have no ill will — but no real affection, either. The whole ordeal was so painful, I could understand it keeping some from leaving the nest.

At the start of my experiment, here is where I stood: I had a Netflix account in my own name, a shared commercial-free Hulu account that I partially subsidize, access to Amazon Prime that I don't think I've ever used and my former roommates' new cable log-in info for discretionary authenticated views. Some may call that last one "cheating" and/or "illegal," but it is also the norm. The only people who don't have access to cable passwords in 2016 are millennial orphans who never knew the warm kiss of a flickering channel guide in the first place. And this is a diet, not a fast.

Because I really wasn't ready to jump back in bed with another big communications company, I decided to up the ante by spending the first month of the experiment without signing up for Internet in my new home either. And while the following chronological recap will reveal a man deeply conflicted about how to best consume his beloved media, I can tell you right now that wifi ranks somewhere between walls and a functioning toilet in terms of household necessities.

Day 1 It's the first week of July. Even if I did have cable, I don't think I'd turn it on. There's nothing. A friend who's over for dinner informs me that the most recent season of That's The Great British Bake Off is streaming on the PBS app. Public broadcasting is still gratis for all, so I stream on my phone — no authentication required. God bless America.

Day 3 I'm house-sitting for fellow cord cutters. They have Apple TV. I go to watch an episode of Mr. Robot on the USA Now app, expecting to be blocked by a request for authentication, but I get the green light. The same goes for UnReal on Lifetime's website. Are these networks just that eager to build audiences for their shows? I can't imagine AMC would hand out episodes of The Walking Dead like free toothbrushes at the dentist.

Day 5 Back at home. Watching TV on your phone demands attentive viewing — mostly because you can't communicate with anyone while watching. Since the start of this episode Bake Off, I've ignored four texts and one call and don't have the slightest idea of what's going on in my inbox. I take a moment to say a silent prayer of appreciation for the grandfathered unlimited data on my AT&T contract. Data is my generation's pension. They tell me I'm good so long as I never leave, but, in my heart, I know I'll get screwed eventually.

Day 8 Start The Night Of on HBO Go, using old roommate's password. Richard Plepler has gone on record saying he's cool with that, so I feel little guilt. Besides, he'd probably be more upset that I'm watching it on a four-inch screen.

Day 12 I'm not at home on a Friday night. But, if I was, I'd notice that old episodes of BrainDead do not stream on Hulu or the CBS website. I'd see that you need CBS All Access to watch it and remember that I blew that free trial in a frenzied and ultimately ill-fated attempt to watch The Good Wife series finale on the night it aired. (The back catalog of NCIS repeats did not call me back). Since BrainDead is not an option, and I don't presently have the patience for the bad choices on The Night Of, I log into Netflix for the first time in weeks and start Stranger Things. This is how people fall into binging k-holes.

Day 13 A text from AT&T: "Your data usage this month has reached 16.5GB..." Oh no. "If you exceed 22GB before your next cycle..." Shit. "You can still use unlimited data however your speeds may be reduced." Phew.

Day 15 Without revealing too much about myself and depths of my low-brow tastes, the only appointment TV I am thus-far watching this summer is The Bachelorette. There's a rotating Monday viewing party in my neighborhood, one I can sadly no longer host, so I barter pizza for the use of someone else's TV. 

Day 17 That's a wrap on Stranger Things. I lament watching it all on my phone and start to regret my no-internet pledge.

Day 18 Donald Trump is accepting the Republican presidential nomination. CNN allows me to stream for 15 minutes, without submitting a cable password, and I decide that it is more than enough.

Day 19 House-sitting again, but the ESPN app on Apple TV proves problematic. Getting screened for TSA pre-check status was easier than watching O.J. Simpson: Made In America. Apparently it's coming to Hulu, anyway. But it now dawns on me that watching college football this fall may be more difficult than originally anticipated.

Day 20 Former roommate and authentication enabler informs me that he, too, has cut the cord. Good thing my parents haven't changed their default password since 1998.

Day 25: Disaster. After successfully streaming President Obama's DNC speech the night before — high-res and no buffering? Thanks again, PBS! — watching Hillary Clinton proves more difficult. For the first 20 minutes, I am a true Los Angeles monster. Stuck in traffic, I stream a YouTube feed, phone placed gingerly on my dashboard while I drive with one hand and eat a salad with the other. (Sorry, mom!) Even when I'm home, the stream keeps cutting out. Not sure if I should blame my fellow Americans on the same feed, the aforementioned data warning or the barrage of texts I can't respond to, but I miss a good 15 percent of the speech and surrender. I resolve to sign up for high-speed internet.

Day 28 While I wait (read: procrastinate) for internet, I decide to be quaint and rent a movie. There's a Redbox at my local Ralph's, and I get a Blu-ray of Everybody Wants Some. Redbox is surprisingly cheap and easy. Sadly, I am an idiot. I have a DVD player, not a Blu-ray. I go back to watching Bake Off on my phone, swiftly concluding my first and final RedBox experience.

Day 30 Like a caveman emboldened by fire, the internet has opened me up to a host of other modern conveniences. Having unboxed a ChromeCast I got for free over a year ago, my phone is unshackled. I stream freely from my computer, magically beaming TV to my television, with only a few technical setbacks. I am, after all, on the older end of being a millennial. These things don't come easy.

Day 33 I've awaited the Olympics with a mix of glee and dread. I really didn't know how much I'd be permitted to watch without access to the broadcast channel, but the NBC site works well enough (with my parents' cable log-in) during the opening ceremony. The only setback is I can now recite the same three commercials that repeated during every break. Money well spent, Procter & Gamble.

Day 35 Having told my parents that I am lightly leaning on their cable account, my mother forwards me an article with the following headline: "Sharing Netflix and HBO passwords is now a federal crime, but here’s why not to worry." Apparently I don't need to worry, so I don't bother reading. (Sorry again, mom!)

Day 38 All Olympic anxiety has dissolved. I've been watching live and banked streams on the NBC Sports app with little disturbance, and my parents have yet to be arrested.

Day 45 Before leaving for the airport, I log into iTunes — for the first time since Lemonade stopped being a Tidal exclusive — to download a show for my flight. One HD episode for an hourlong drama costs $2.99 and, far worse, more than 2 gigs of memory. I opt for SD and a palatable 22-minute comedy (just 260MB), Bravo's Odd Mom Out. It downloads in the six minutes it takes for my Uber to arrive.

Day 50 Without channel-surfing as an option, I watch a lot less television. I know there's a beefy back catalog of HGTV shows on Netflix, but it feels like such a chore to seek it out that I more often find myself listening to a podcast when I'm alone at home. Terry Gross and I have never been closer. 

Day 54 I'm drunk on the power of borrowed cable authentication — and shocked at the volume of network-dedicated apps that exist, both in general and on my phone. The Comedy Central app, which I've downloaded to catch up on Another Period, is simply called "Comedy." I find that presumptuous and delete it when I'm done.

Day 56 The speed at which HBO puts new episodes on HBO Go and HBO Now is impressive. I get home late and still watch The Night Of finale on the night of the finale. (You see what I did there?) From what I've seen over the last two months, this is the quickest turnaround for any entertainment programming by any traditional network. I understand why it costs a premium and mull what I'd be willing to pay ABC or Hulu if they offered a similarly prompt delivery of Bachelor in Paradise.

In Conclusion: The big bundle might a necessary evil, perhaps even a reliable comfort, for some. But it is no longer for me. A weight is off my shoulders. I imagine our founding fathers shared this swagger and pride when they revolted, hacking away their own proverbial ties to oppressive English law and taxation with the pointy end of a bayonet.

It is not going to be easy, this life I've chosen. I will maintain my Netflix and Hulu accounts, occasionally siphoning my parents' cable account, but I don't see myself signing up for other standalone services any time soon. I might feel differently if I could not lean on borrowed passwords, but that is thankfully not one of my problems. One immediate issue that needs remedy, however, is the vehicle for those streams. ChromeCast is probably great for more passive viewers, but I need a remote control that is not my phone or laptop. I'll buy Apple TV before the fall season. 

This trial was plagued by unreliable streams and several forced communal viewings — god only knows what I'm going to do when college football starts this weekend —  but I embrace the potential inconvenience. There's really only one thing I've lost in all this, and that is the delight of casually stumbling upon House Hunters when the universe knows it's just what I need. I'll miss your unique blend of real estate porn and psychological warfare between spouses, but it's not worth $137 a month.

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