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A Year Later, Life Goes on Without Cable TV

After having cable TV for my entire adult life, last year I decided to cut the cord.

Obviously, life went on.

While I’m not a huge TV junkie, I do think all but a few niche groups of TV viewers could do the same with out feeling like they’re missing out on much.

My motivations for dropping cable were driven by value — I did not think that cable was a good deal.

I was paying about $1,000 a year (that included DVR, HD channels and HBO) to be able to watch a handful of TV shows when they first aired.

If there were fives shows a week that I was watching regularly, I was essentially paying $4.17 per show.

I concluded that there were only several shows that I really wanted to see when they first aired so that I could engage in conversation about episodes with other viewers while they were still new. Further, the market rate for purchasing an episode of a show at Amazon and iTunes is less than $3/episode, so unless I started watching more TV, I was overpaying.

Lastly, while $1,000 isn’t a huge amount of money in the grand scheme of things, it can pay for a lot of other entertainment. For example, if you assume that a movie ticket typically costs $13.50, the savings from ditching cable could allow me to purchase up to 74 movie tickets.

The main argument against cutting the cord is that doing so disconnects you from people and the world. TV is a universal currency that connects us — it’s a commonality that allows us to have conversations at the water cooler. After a year without cable, what I became attuned to the fact that not only are there no longer any water cooler shows — I think Seinfeld was the last show when you could talk about last night’s episode with just about anyone — but that our collective TV viewing habits have become fairly fractured.

Before I used to think that there was just so much content out there that there was diminishing overlap with what people watch — there are too many shows out there for there to be many that we all watch. But it’s not just that. What I believe is also going on is that people are increasingly choosing to wait to watch a show once the full season is available on home video or online at Netflix, or even when the full series is available. Not only do we prefer to watch TV on our own schedule, but there is a strong preference for watching all the episodes in a season in a compressed period of time.

Now getting to the experience of life without cable TV, there are free and paid options available for watching most shows that are currently airing on TV.

While people typically think of the internet as the place to go for free content, we easily forget that the four major networks are still broadcasting over the air. A month into my cable-less existence I bought a rabbit ear antenna for $10 and a dozen feet of coaxial cable so I could place the antenna by my window. Boom! I now had CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, PBS and a bunch of other random stations in HD with 5.1 sound at zero cost. So now I could continue to to watch shows on these networks when they first air without having to pay a cent (but I did have to do it without the aid of a DVR).

A fair number of cable TV shows are available for purchase the day after they air — this includes hugely popular shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men — and can be viewed on your TV via a device like Roku or Apple TV.

For shows that are not on premium channels, I found it hugely preferable to watch them via purchase per episode for several reasons: 1) I get to watch the shows without commercial interruptions. Even if you record the shows on your DVR so you can fast-forward through the commercials, it’s an optimal experience to never have them there — they create a forced break in the narrative. 2) I get to own the show that am paying to watch. This is really huge. It allows me to rewatch a season whenever I want. Before the first half of Breaking Bad’s 5th Season aired, for instance, I was able to go back and rewatch Season 4 before it had been released on home video or been made available for streaming on Netflix. And obviously years later I can rewatch episodes. 3) Basic cable shows remove some bad language and occasionally spoil a scene that contains violence with warning messages.

I remember a lot of people complaining about how the “graphic violence” warning that AMC showed before the box cutter scene with Gus in Season 4 of Breaking Bad diminished the shock.

There is no escaping the fact that cable TV holds a tight monopoly on sports — even with internet sports streaming channels like MLB.TV there are all kinds of black out rules. But there is still a lot of sports that’s carried on broadcast networks, especially the NFL (as I write this I’m watching the Eagles-Giants game over the air in HD). Whether over the air will suffice for sports fans really comes down to just how much sports you want to watch, and especially how much you only want to watch your home team.

On the whole, it’s been a pretty unremarkable year.

As I said before, there are so many other people waiting to watch current shows until the full season is available that even if I am able to remain up to date on a show by purchasing it per episode on Amazon, there are still going to be others behind me. The new normal is that everyone is watching a different season of a hit show.

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