Critic's Notebook: What to Add After Cutting the Cord? Potentially a Lot

You've saved money, so now you can spend some of it. Having options — and time to watch what you really want — is key.
Illustration by: Mario Wagner

In the first part of my cord-cutting journey I detailed the how and why of even starting, and part two offered some streaming basics for people who feel clueless or don't know where to start. After all the research and the talking to friends and then the free trials, I chose PlayStation Vue for my cord-cutting choice, settling in at $55 a month after having spent $213 a month for DirecTV.

That's a pretty good savings, but it also obviously wasn't telling the whole financial story. After all, I got a lot more in the DirecTV package but, as I made very clear at the start of this journey, I didn't want all of that "more." The next step is the best step. It's the fun part.

Adding on.

Now, I'm going to add up the total as I go along, even though money wasn't the reason I cut the cord, as stated. I fundamentally don't like paying for stuff I'm not using. And all those cable channels — the "more" that seemed like such a good selling point about, what, a decade or more ago? — no longer have appeal. Those channels seem less like added value than waste. 

But I'm going to keep a running tally because a) people who say that adding streaming services ends up costing the same amount as cable are confusing the argument about why people cut the cord (if you do it for financial reasons, you don't add on expensive channels), and b) sometimes getting less is more (meaning, I'd swap out 40 channels I never use for one streaming service that I'll use all the time). 

For a lot of people, me included, cutting the cord wasn't a financial decision. Would I like to spend less? Sure. But if I were going to spend the same amount, I'd rather spend it on channels I actually watch, even if that means drastically reducing how many I have.

Part of the appeal, at least for me, was the possibility of making my viewing experience better and more varied (which meant streamlining it, for starters). As I noted in my main piece, I had already long since shifted how I watch television. The most important button on my remote became "input" — which shifted my flat-screen off DirecTV and onto Apple TV, where I could easily click on my apps for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, the places where I was doing the overwhelming bulk of my viewing.

What I thought I wanted and what I actually wanted ended up being the most important revelation of this whole exercise. I also know that if I need to watch or review something on a channel I don't receive — rare, but possible — I can still get a link for it. That's just part of the job. But as far as the enjoyment, I got down to what I liked most, and there's value in doing that for yourself.

So I made a list of the essential add-ons and then ones I'd like to have but don't.

On the essential list: HBO. That's $15. Now, will that be cheaper or more expensive when HBO Max launches? WarnerMedia is promising tons of content that doesn't exist on HBO right now, but I'd argue that going over that existing $15 mark on the new service would be a bad idea for WarnerMedia, which will be launching after Disney+ premieres in November at $7 and after Apple TV+ is rumored (by Bloomberg) to launch in November as well, at $10 (another Bloomberg guess).

When writing about the Streaming Wars heating up — and I've been doing that for years and jumping around from service to service to yet more services (wars are exhausting) — this is what I meant it would look like for consumers, which now feels very real for a recent cord-cutter. Would I rather pay $7 for Disney+ (discounted to $70 total if you pay for a year in advance) than more than $15 for HBO Max?

Duh.

For starters, Disney+ is going to open the vault to all the Disney classics, has all the Pixar movies and the Star Wars franchise, the Marvel catalog, high-end National Geographic fare and the entirety of the Simpsons catalog. Are you kidding me? Everyone is buying that, especially at a drastically reduced rate. 

Would I rather pay roughly $15 for HBO Max, which theoretically will offer more than 10,000 hours of programming, than the $10 guesstimate on AppleTV+, which will launch with a handful of shows?

That's another duh. If you are looking at bang for your buck, you don't have to look too long at the disparity there.

But of course now that I've cut the cord and saved money, I can have all of them — so let's go with the guesses and say, I'm in. Or I will be when they launch (which would add $32 to this ledger).

At this point, I'm a hard pass on NBCUniversal, which will also launch sometime in 2020 and will need to start hyping its content better, because I'm not going with the "free" option that demands I already subscribe to cable.

But since neither Disney+ nor AppleTV+ nor HBO Max has launched yet, I'm going to put only $15 in the ledger for HBO Now, the streaming app, or I can just add it through my Amazon subscription.

For people concerned about the money part, bear in mind that a lot of these new streaming channels will have a bundling option, likely with something else I might want (say, from Apple), or something I don't want (like ESPN, which I'm already getting with my PlayStation Vue). Disney+ has announced that it will bundle ESPN+ with Hulu for $13, but it's the ad-supported version of Hulu, and I have no interest in that. Plus, as noted, I'm getting ESPN in my "live TV streaming" package from PlayStation Vue. These are the kinds of variables that will work out in time. For now, I'd rather just pay the $7 for Disney+ and not bundle.

Similarly, it wouldn't be surprising to find that in the myriad HBO Max plans, one option is to simply allow people to keep subscribing to HBO, which has a small amount of appeal if WarnerMedia loses its mind and prices HBO Max at, say, $20. 

With November streaming launches still in the distance and no need to make immediate decisions, the ledger stands at $70 now that I've added HBO Now. 

Next up?

The Criterion Channel. Boom! Yeah, I've always wanted this gem, and now is the time. Available for $11 a month or $100 per year. This is the premiere movie channel to own. I already get Turner Classic Movies in my package, so that's a nice combo.

That puts me at $81.

BritBox. Come on — it's the streaming combo of the BBC and ITV. That's a must-have right there, because if you're an Anglophile or merely a fan of British series, you could pretty much watch this 24 hours a day and nothing else: Absolutely Fabulous, Agatha Christie's Poirot, Red Dwarf, Cracker, Prime Suspect, Upstairs Downstairs, Fawlty Towers, Maigret (old and new), Vera, Rev, EastEnders and Coronation Street — I mean, really? Do I need to go on? It's $7 a month or $70 a year and I didn't even mention A Bit of Fry and Laurie.

New total (going by monthly figures to make it easier): $88.

Acorn TV. People have suggested that Acorn and BritBox are too similar, with Acorn cornering the British market before BritBox even existed. But now Acorn TV is fully international and the two services have different vibes and are, to my estimation, both essential. Plus, Acorn TV is only $5 and also has a "pay for 10 months and get 12" option. (Both Acorn TV and BritBox are easy add-ons via Amazon Prime.)

Running total: $93.

Epix. Look, I'd pay $6 just to watch the whole season of Perpetual Grace, LTD (which I think will be renewed), but the channel also has Get Shorty, Pennyworth, Berlin Station and Deep State, so it has added value (I have hearty endorsements via reviews for Pennyworth and both seasons of Get Shorty).

Total: $99.

It's still a long way from $213. In fact, $114 away, even with the "new" streaming channels I added — Criterion Channel, BritBox, Acorn and Epix, that I'm not currently paying for. 

I'm not interested, at this point, in adding either Showtime (which I could do through both PlayStation Vue and Amazon Prime for $11), or Starz ($9 through Amazon Prime) or certainly not CBS All Access ($6, also through Amazon Prime). The first two were included in my DirecTV package.

Translation: In my selections so far, I believe I've got tons more to watch than I clearly have time for without adding those marquee offerings. But at least I want all the channels I'm getting in this new configuration — though technically that's not true because I "want" only 13 and "like" only 26 of the 78 channels I'm getting in my PlayStation Vue "Core Tier" package. But I can't help that part; maybe one day some "live TV streaming" package will simply say, "pick any 60 channels for X amount of dollars." Until then, this is the best bet.

Since I was already paying for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime outside my DirecTV package, they don't count against that $213 total. As you can see, even though this process wasn't financially motivated, I saved a lot.

I do think the best way to think about this from a financial standpoint as we move into the Streaming Wars era is this way, a point I've made in the past: more and better streaming options, coupled with more and better information on cord-cutting, will be the tipping point that changes the equation for the roughly 80 percent of the country that's still tied to cable and satellite. People could rationalize a hefty cable bill plus Netflix. Those with a little more money could probably rationalize a cable bill plus Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But Disney+, AppleTV+, HBO Max and, eventually, something from NBCUniversal — those sparkling new additions necessitate tough financial decisions that weren't being made even two months ago.

Change is upon us and it will forever alter the TV industry.

Are you ready?