How (And Why) I Cut the Cord: A TV Critic's Journey Over the Top

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If cutting the cable cord actually saves money for people or streamlines the viewing experience while adding better options at roughly the same price for people not hung up on the money part — and it's shocking how easy all of this is to do — then why are more people not doing it?

Simple: It just seems too confusing. Which is actually very true except for the fact that there are plenty of short-cuts — including this series — that will do all the heavy mental lifting for you. 

Seriously, there are multiple resources out there (including this eye-popping CNET deep dive) that have de-cluttered and simplified the insane amount of information surrounding the easy act of cutting your cable cord and entering the streaming world full-time (and the Streaming Wars that now await you).

I should know. I just did it. And it was...revelatory.

I've been experimenting with and researching this issue for a while now, and talking with other people clearly revealed the age-old stop sign of confusion leading to inertia. I'm convinced that's why more people are not cutting the cord, despite what I said above about there being plenty of well-resourced short-cuts to help figure out how to do it. If ignorance is bliss, wow is the cable industry relying on everyone's currently blissful state to sleep at night.

Knowing that streaming is arguably the biggest issue facing the TV industry, and having written extensively about the Streaming Wars that are now upon us, I decided that if I couldn't actually be considered an early adopter, I'd still be way ahead of most people I know if I jumped in. So I did.

Here's the quick, blunt takeaways of what I discovered:

Know why you're doing this

1. It's either going to be about money or ease of use. For most Americans, the money thing is very real and there are ways to cut the cord easily and save a ton of money (more on that shortly). The results for everyone else will vary depending on how many options they want, but many people will still likely save some good money even if that's not an issue for them. 

2. If it's not about money, then it's about evolution and right now you're probably stuck in this transition. You need to revamp your viewing experience and let in the future — streaming. You likely haven't done this because of the aforementioned hassle and a dose of ignorance. In this case, your money is complicating things. It's easy to not change because you can afford to not think about that change and pay for cable while also paying for streaming. But not only is that wasteful, it's inefficient and unnecessary. Why pay for channels you're not watching even if you can afford to?

I switched because it was very clear to me that the way I was watching and enjoying TV had changed, and the old way — tethered to a clunky cable or satellite package with channels I no longer watched or wanted — made no sense. I was only using my DirecTV package to watch live and local sports and a few channels where I was still actually using the DVR to record series (less than two years ago that thing was so full it was deleting unwatched episodes on its own accord, and now the DVR is basically empty because most of what I watch comes from streaming platforms). My monthly DirecTV bill — paid for by THR, otherwise I would have definitely been an early adopter — was, at that point, $213.02 a month, and that didn't account for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

Know what you want.

This is the most surprising thing I found in the process. In April of this year, I wrote a column  about what channels I thought I wanted and didn't want. I was riffing, mostly, but I acknowledged that I was probably forgetting some I wanted and including some I'd end up not watching.

Boy was the first draft really, really wrong.

Now, it should be no mystery that live sports and local channels (which can carry those sports) are the deal-breaker, line-of-first defense demands that many would-be cord-cutters make. Having not researched what's available, they don't cut the cord because they've heard it was impossible to get what they wanted.

Mostly that's wrong. You can do this. And you can do this your way.

I started by taking out a pad of paper and writing down channels that I thought would be "essential" — some, but not all, were mentioned in that linked April column. Once finished, I set that list aside and then decided to track how often I watched those channels — including for reviews — and to see if I could spot any viewing trends.

I sure as hell did: I was barely, if ever, even watching those channels. And I mean most of them. I went back and, thinking primarily about scripted television, redid the list and wrote down all the cable channels that I absolutely, positively could not live without, based on my actual viewing patterns. Here's what that list looked like:

HBO. FX. AMC. BBC America. Sundance TV. 

Um, that's not very long, now is it? Again, most of the stuff I'm watching is either on that list or on my streaming services. But I also realized that not all my favorite series were airing and, factoring in a few other scripted issues, lengthened the list with: Showtime, Starz, PBS, Comedy Central, Syfy, TNT/TBS, USA Network. At that point, I'm not kidding you, the lengthened part, sans PBS, didn't actually seem "essential" anymore. (Once you get in cutting mode, it kind of takes over.)

It was surprising, but certainly not shocking.

Staring at the list I realized if I was going to cut the cord, I was doing the "essentials" list a little bit ass-backward, since most of those, outside of HBO, Showtime and Starz (because of its premium cable status), were already included in most of the packages I was considering. Bare-bones options were off the table because I wanted not only access to local channels and live sports but, for me, I wanted most if not all of the major sports league channels and, for the little dash of news I had to have, something that carried BBC World News. 

This is why I say it's pretty simple: You either cut the cord deeply for financial reasons and find yourself choosing between three "budget" options — Sling ($25), Philo ($20), AT&T Watch TV ($15). Or you choose among five "moderate" options in Hulu + Live TV ($45), PlayStation Vue ($50), YouTube TV ($50), AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now; $50 including HBO), or Fubo ($55) and then add-on options until you get what you're looking for. 

So instead of eight platforms (or nine — Sling technically offers two slightly different "budget" offerings) to choose from, it was now five. If even that sounds overwhelming, it wasn't. Again, it was shockingly simple.

Because if you know exactly what you want, platforms almost immediately rule themselves out by what they don't offer you. If you stick to your list of must-haves instead of being wishy-washy, the process goes smoothly. After a very brief time cross-checking channel offerings (another shout-out to that impressive CNET package), the decision was essentially made.

I definitely wanted live sports and the local network affiliates that carry them. And, as a sports fan, I wanted access to all the channels run by each league — MLB Channel, NFL Network, NBA TV (I also wanted — not needed — the NHL Network and hopefully something that had options for international soccer). As a West Coast resident, I didn't really care if I got ESPN and the East Coast bias that comes with it, nor all the bloated mess of its many lame shows. But I damn sure wanted the league-based channels in its place. (Some form of ESPN is usually included on almost all the moderately priced platforms, by the way — but I was ready to skip it). Lastly but essentially, I needed NBC Sports Network, which is a regional sports network that would allow me, as a Bay Area resident, to watch Warriors, Giants, A's and Sharks games if I wanted.

(If you're a non-sports fan and you're paying attention, you might think, "Hey, why do you need local channels if you're getting all that cable stuff for sports?" The answer is: football. That's primarily a network-based sport, so you need the local channels.)

So, where did this leave me? 

Well, to give you the full picture of how the decision was made, when I first started this journey months ago with almost no information, I thought the ambitiously-priced, much-hyped and super convenient Hulu + Live TV was going to be the answer, but then I actually paid attention and realized that it didn't offer the MLB Network, NFL Network or NBA TV. That was an easy pass (I'd also consistently heard that the user interface on Hulu + Live TV was not good and then, yes, confirmed it). I heard raves about YouTube TV, from interface to channel options, so I looked there first. It was checking all the boxes for me — AMC, BBC America, BBC World News, FX, Sundance TV, MLB Network, NBA TV, NBC Sports Network — all the key must-haves, but NFL Network.

You will run into this. It won't necessarily be NFL Network for you, obviously. But it will be one must-have channel. I found this – many cases of this — throughout my search but the only one that affected me directly was NFL Network missing on YouTube TV, when I was locked and ready.

So I ultimately chose PlayStation Vue — and no, you don't need a PlayStation gaming system to actually use it, just an app — because it allowed me to go up a tier and get everything I wanted. (PlayStation Vue also has, I found, the best delineated tiers; everyone else tries to keep it pretty simple, probably to seem as un-cable-like as possible). But I liked being able to bump up a mere $5 and get all the major sports league channels I wanted, plus my regional sports network and all the "must have" channels on my list. Your path will obviously be different. I didn't have to make any difficult concessions and felt good about it.

Now, when I mention this part, I don't want you to get all dizzy: Another reason I vastly preferred PlayStation Vue was because it allowed me to fast-forward through recorded content, which many others do not allow. (The "on demand" feature on pretty much every service will not let you fast-forward; and, if you record a show "live" and it goes to your DVR, lots of services will then swap it out with the on-demand version, killing your ability to fast forward). To me, avoiding that fate and being able to skip commercials was gold. PlayStation Vue also has allows fives simultaneous streams (a lot; some others limit you to two or, on the "budget" scale, sometimes one); and, though it supports all streaming devices like Roku and Fire TV, because I'm using Apple TV I can tap into the multi-screen (four) channel capacity for live sports. Not that I would, but still. The Sony service also allows you to add on more sports if you want or even include HBO and Showtime if you want them on your same bill. I didn't. (For some of the basics of this process, see the handy sidebar I wrote.)

Once I winnowed it down to PlayStation Vue — and again, it was surprisingly simple — I was set for my vastly reduced cable-like plan: local network channels, live sports, plus just the right amount of cable channels I wanted, an interface I could stomach (that will take some getting used to no matter which service you choose; eventually it becomes more intuitive), and a bill for $54.99.

I consider this the base set-up. I'm happy with it. And guess what? If I'm not happy, I cancel and get a different one. There are no contracts. The cord has been cut.

Next up: In Part 2, I'll get into the streaming add-ons and how that changes the cost) plus what it's like to have a vastly more streamlined viewing experience and some of the intangibles you'll want to consider.