Critic's Notebook: Why It's Time to Cut the Cord

Disney+ Demo - H - 2019

Here's how it's going to happen: You're going to look at what you want. You're going to look at what you have. You're going to look at what you're paying for (which is a lot of stuff you don't want). And then it will happen — you will not just be looking to the future, you will be a part of it. 

Change is slow. Shifts in industry are slow. Consumer awareness about shifting trends are slow on the intake and very slow in the changing of ingrained habits.

But not slow enough to be stopped. Change is coming.

And so it's with particular interest if you allow yourself to be pulled back from the prevailing wisdom — as espoused by those who are currently dominating the industry — that you won't cut the cable cord and see it clearly for what it is:

A wish, not a truth.

Oh, you're going to cut it, alright. And even those who don't sever it completely will make a big gash in how they pay for content. It'll be exciting.

And, oh by the way, it's here.

I've written about this before and will obviously again in some detail because cutting the cord is part of the Streaming Wars. It's the beginning part, on the consumer end. And what will speed it up dramatically — through this year and next like a shock to the system — is not just that the Big Six streamers will all be in place by the end of the year or that they will have generated tons of attention, fueling the industrial revolution of sorts, but that it will happen simultaneously with consumers being better-versed about their options for getting a drastically reduced amount of "cable" channels, plus live and local sports on not one or two or three but four legitimately easy to understand and mostly well-priced platforms — Hulu + Live TV, You Tube TV, Playstation Vue and DirecTV Now.

Those two events are key. There was no need to know anything about things like Playstation Vue for most people (no, you don't need a gaming system, you just need an app), because having a cable or satellite package and still getting Netflix or Amazon or Hulu was a thing for a vast majority of people.

But now you take Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and add Disney+, Apple+ and WarnerMedia to the party and all of a sudden, consumers can't ignore that the future is here — and they want it! — and they need to figure out how to take advantage of it (with something like Hulu + Live TV poised to grow massively because of it).

So that's the "you're going to look at what you want part." Everybody is going to want these glittering streaming services.

What I want to talk about is the next stage — looking at what you have and what you're paying for it — on your cable bill. I think this has gone from a dismissive joke that nobody did anything about to tipping point.

Here, let's look at my satellite bill and how much I don’t want what I'm getting. Shall we? 

I get DirecTV. And — duh, I'm a TV critic — I get the premium package. For how much longer? Not much, I'd say. Here's part of the reason why:

It has 330-plus channels.

I don't need 330-plus channels.

Neither do you. You've just accepted it, as we all have, as excess that's tossed in as some kind of "added bonus" that you get when you pay for the channels you really want. But you only accept this because: 1. You can't get just the channels you really want because the cable industry hates a la carte pricing ideas. 2. Maybe you do want, say, 30 or 40 channel options, but to get them you end up with 100 or more channels that you never watch. Cable loves unnecessary bundling. 3. There were never a multitude of compelling streaming options to make you want them — and now there will be, making you realize you can't afford them all without cutting your cable and thus having to look harder and more critically at what you're paying for versus what you really need or want.

Translation: Change is coming.

But back to my cable/satellite bill. 

I won't list everything so let's just be clear that something like 278 or 3,000 of those channels I've never heard of or ever clicked on.

Countless amounts of them are all the multiples of HBO or Showtime or Starz or whatever premium channel, with East and West Coast channels. Completely and utterly unnecessary, unwanted and something the cable companies think people want when they don't really. Just let me stream HBO. It's pretty simple.

Honestly, I'm not sure I even want Showtime or Starz. Maybe if they are in a package? 

What else is on there? Countless regional sports channels that it looks like I get but don't really get. Religious channels. Spanish language channels, which would be great if I spoke Spanish. Shopping channels. Hundreds of pay-per movie channel options I don't want. If you minus out the premium channels and the super-repetitive variations on each, I'm getting what most people are getting and that's still dozens of channels I don’t want. And that's when it gets cold.

I don't need Cinemax, Nickelodeon, TeenNick, the History Channel, the Weather Channel, etc. Do I need all the Discovery Channels? No. Definitely not. Some. Package them up for streaming and we'll see. 

I don't need the Movie Channel. Or Flix. Or OWN. Or the Cooking Channel — any kind of cooking channel. Or the Travel Channel. Is that a Discovery Channel? They have like 38 channels. I don't need Oxygen, or the DIY Network or WeTV or WGN America. Just scrolling down this enormous list of things I get but don't need or want. I don't want the Tennis Channel (but I might keep the Golf Channel). 

I don't want or need AXS TV, MTV, Fuse, Bloomberg, E!, Lifetime, TV Land, A&E, Viceland, Hallmark, Reelz, Home Shopping Networks (I said that!), Viceland, HGTV....

How long is this list? Maybe it's easier to go in the opposite, more positive direction.

Here's what I do want —channels that are essential:

Give me HBO — yes I'd probably start with this outside of the WarnerMedia option for streaming  — then FX, AMC, BBC America, Syfy, Comedy Central, PBS, National Geographic to thrive on. I want my regional sports channel for local teams. I want NBA TV, MLB TV; the NFL Channel, at most two ESPN channels; one or two channels that carry worldwide soccer (is that still BeIn Sports and Fox Soccer?). I want Cartoon Network. And Boomerang. That's less than 20 channels and I didn't include Turner stuff, particularly Turner Classic Movies, because I'll get that on the streaming side and yes, I know there's overlap, but it'll get sorted.

Once the rest is winnowed, then it's time to go for streaming options. I want all of the Big Six streamers — Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, Apple+ and WarnerMedia. 

But again, the point is that the actual number of cable channels I want numbers less than 20 — a far cry from the 330-plus I'm paying for now. 

So my essential "wants" are so small that the end tally is practically screaming "cut the cord." 

Look, the fact is that any of the places you seek out once you cut the cord, like Hulu + Live TV and the others mentioned above, are going to offer you a small base package of "cable" channels and then you can add on stuff like HBO, etc., but that small base package is probably going to have more offerings than you want — certainly more than my essentials above.

The dream is to be able to curate your own base package, but I'll get into whether that's a possibility in another column as I detail how to actually do this.

All I wanted to prove here is that I'm paying for more cable channels than I want. Are you? Figuring it out is the first step into the future.

For some people, saving money will be the main driver and that will be easy enough to achieve. For others, like me, cord-cutting cable savings will then be used to buy streaming services (I would add BritBox, Acorn and the Criterion Channel) and that might push the total dollar amount closer to what I was already previously paying, but the difference will be that I'm paying for only the channels I want and will use, which is infinitely more palatable.