Critic's Notebook: How to Enjoy the Platinum Age of Television Without Going Broke

New means of content availability have made paying exorbitant prices for cable and satellite a dead model, writes THR's chief TV critic.
Courtsy of Patrick Harbron/FX; Ron Batzdorff/NBC; HBO
From left: 'The Americans,' 'This Is Us,' 'Game of Thrones'

It used to be that friends would ask me what amazing shows they should be watching. Now they ask me how to help reduce their cable bills or create affordable skinny bundles so they don't go broke.

Good times!

Seriously, five years ago it was, "What are the best five TV shows that I should be watching?" and I could reel that list off in my sleep. Even back then there were dozens of great series, but it felt like if a non-pro wanted a solid five shows, it was my duty as their friendly neighborhood TV critic to help them out.

Now I just hold up five fingers on an open hand and stop them. "I can't give you five. There are hundreds of shows you should be watching," I tell them, as they get queasy or flinch. To save time, I just end up texting or emailing them links to my best-shows-of-the-year lists (46 in 2015, with 16 additional network shows; 38 in 2016 with 13 additional network shows). I follow that up with, "Those are the ones I watched. There are so many more I never got to see."

And I basically never see them again. Maybe they're busy watching, whittling down the lists. Maybe they're afraid to see me and say, "I only watched 23 of the 46 from 2015 — I am so, so sorry!"

I don't know.

I do know the aforementioned cable/cost-cutting discussion is much more prevalent these days in person and at parties. And yes, it's a less sexy discussion. Yet for a group of savvy people who used to pray for a day when they'd get to see the unicorn of cable dreams — a la carte channel choices! — they are very excited about skinny bundles and streaming options.

Put another way: They want to pay less, want fewer options and mostly want to stream their content.

So the first thing I ask them is, "How relevant do you want to be?" Meaning, do they want to be able to talk with people at work the next day about The Americans or This Is Us or The Walking Dead or any other series when it's actually on the air, such as Game of Thrones?

Almost overwhelmingly, they do not.

On the other hand, none of them want to hear spoilers for their favorite shows that they're not watching live or Live+7 or even Live+30, in some cases. So I tell them that life is hard and they just need to get over it, or stop talking to co-workers and using the internet.

What's important in this discussion for people in the TV industry who are reading this (and live inside an industry bubble) is that the wonderful Platinum Age of Television has stripped your consumers of any sense of urgency. Only in very rare instances do people ever tell me they need to watch something close to when it airs. If they are sports fans, that's the real exception. But when it's an economic discussion, and most often it is, even in the wealthy Bay Area, not being au courant is not a concern. If you apply that position to the country at large it explains a lot about the state of television, ratings, advertising and how and when to count people who watch programs. Translation: It's a problem.

On a more positive note, people absolutely want to see all the shows they're hearing about, so excitement about content is as high as ever (but they will get to those shows when they can, meaning later).

Most people also just want to de-clutter their channel selection. They don't want 500 channels. They want about 10 plus Netflix, basically.

All of them want Netflix. Because all of them seem to have Netflix. But you knew that.

So what do I tell them?

If they can wait to see shows and budgeting is a real concern, I tell them to kill their cable or satellite subscription immediately. "If I wasn't a TV critic, I would absolutely do that."

For most people, that saves between $150 and $180 a month.

Here's the thing — you'd be surprised how many people haven't watched The Wire or The Shield or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Louie or Game of Thrones or literally hundreds of other amazing series from 20+ years ago through last season, which are now in the history books and available to be viewed.

The next thing they usually ask me is what channels or streaming services I couldn't live without and the answer is fairly predictable — HBO, FX, Netflix, Hulu, PBS, Amazon — but that's not everybody's way to cobble together a skinny bundle.

At bare minimum, I tell people HBO, Netflix and Hulu are a must. You can find FX's Fargo and Louie and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia on Hulu, for example, and Netflix is a no-brainer for volume and HBO has that gold-standard vault. If there's wiggle room for money (or, as is often the case — heavy sigh — they are already paying for Amazon Prime and don't know that the streaming service comes with that), I push for Amazon because it's got a lot of both PBS and HBO content along with its own burgeoning list of shows. I'm also a fan of Acorn TV, the Brit-centric streamer (which will now be challenged by BritBox, which I've yet to try) that shakes things up a bit. If they have that panicked look in their eye like they need something else, I tell them Starz.

Somewhere in all of that, there's a way to cover a lot of ground with different price points, and no matter how you structure it, the grand total is almost always less than cable or satellite.

That said, for people who still want to watch popular dramas and comedies the same night they air, DirecTV is offering DirecTV Now, with a $35 tier that has 60+ channels (FX, AMC, BBC America, TNT, NatGeo, ESPN, A&E, Syfy, USA, TNT, etc.), and a $50 tier that has 80+ channels.

A wrinkle in most of these plans is that a lot of people will want a regional sports bundle so they can watch their home teams — I can't imagine not watching a full season of the Golden State Warriors or San Francisco Giants, and millions of people would feel the same way. Which brings up the biggest threat to skinny bundles: inertia. No, that's not a joke. People want to change the way they are consuming television, but then find out cobbling together a replacement is a headache and do nothing.

So, what's the best option?

It really depends on how many channels you actually want and how much you want to spend, but my experience is that people want fewer channels and for those channels to be high quality (or they want the best dramas and comedies from those channels, no matter how old, available on a separate, not-too-expensive streaming service).

Reduction and simplicity — that's what people want. It may take them a while to figure out how to make it happen, but they will. There is nothing more outdated in television than believing in the 500-channel universe as nirvana.

Long before Peak TV was a thing, there were plenty of great shows available on the shelves. Shows people never got around to watching — or more likely, completely finishing. Now those shelves are bulging with new additions every year and the Platinum Age of Television means those new additions are creatively astounding. Viewers are waking up to the notion that immediacy is both expensive and overrated and sampling the deep and rich vault of television is both rewarding and a steal.


Twitter: @BastardMachine