Cutting the Cable: Why to Do It, How to Do It

Last May, we cut cable TV service to the house for the first time in 22 years.

I was going to crow about it then, with an “Oh look at me, how unworldly I am” kind of post, but then I realized that a summer without cable really isn’t that big a deal, and decided to wait to see how it all worked out.

We’re not huge consumers of television, which is why we could make the cut in the first place. I only ever really follow a couple things at a time, and those I always record in order to time-shift and skip the commercials. I prefer either to watch old movies, or TV shows once they complete their run and leave a giant heap of episodes for binge consumption. (We spent a couple years on the entire Wheedonverse.)

We’re doing this now with Breaking Bad via Netflix, which means a few months after everyone stops talking about it, I’ll be all like, “Oh, so that’s what that was all about, yo.” It kind of puts me out of sync with the culture, but it’s not like a neurotic, work-at-home, borderline-agoraphobic writer spends a lot of time standing around the water cooler talking about Jesse and Heisenberg.

The kids have never just “watched TV,” so it’s no problem for them either. The idea of one of them coming home, flopping on the couch, and flipping on the TV to channel surf until they find something is about as likely as one of them strolling into the kitchen, popping a beer, and saying, “Yo Tom, whaddup?!” When they do watch (on weekends only) it’s always been DVD or streaming. My son doesn’t care about it at all, and would rather game.

That’s why we made the choice to save about $600 a year and make a statement against having cultural sewage pumped into our house by people who hate us.

So how’s it working, now that the few things we watch are back and running?

It’s working just fine, and depending upon your viewing habits, you can do the same thing.

It’s certainly not for everyone. My mother–who lives by Fox news–could never do it, and I believe it would be difficult for people who watch a lot of sports or reality shows. Since I’ve never even seen a complete football game or more than 5 minutes of American Idol, this means nothing to me. Currently, the only new things I follow are Person of Interest, Arrow, and Once Upon a Time, and I just added Agents of SHIELD. And I can get all of those by means other than cable.

There’s a benefit to doing it this way: it makes your consumption of entertainment more intentional. You’re not simply “seeing what’s on tonight.” You’re choosing if, when, and what to watch; you’re watching it; then you’re stopping and going off to do something else, like a take a walk, play cards with the kids, pray, or read a book.

There are a few ways to do this. We opted for a combination of computer, Hulu, and Netflix. For $8 a month, Hulu catches most everything we need, with the exception of CBS (for Person of Interest). It also adds the entire Criterion Collection of DVDs (!) as well as a good selection of foreign shows, anime, and other bits and bobs. Got a craving for Korean soap operas or vampire district attorney shows? Hulu’s got you covered. The one problem is commercials: there are fewer of them, but they can’t be skipped, which means I’m watching more commercials now that I did when I recorded live shows.

Netflix (also $8 a month) fills in the other gaps with plenty of stuff I’ve never seen before, like movies, cartoons for the kids, Supernatural, Breaking Bad, Warehouse 13, and a complete IV drip of sweet sweet Star Treky goodness. I also get Amazon Student Prime (primarily for the shipping), which adds a few items not found on Netflix.

For the things not carried on a service, I just run the PC through the TV using an audio-in to the receiver and a cable straight to the TV. (Most laptops have HDMI or VGA output cables.) Network sites usually keep a couple of complete current episodes online for streaming, and these look just find patched through to the TV.

A lot of people are opting for Google Chromecast instead of the computer linkup, and I just ordered one to see if it’s more convenient.

I also added this $10 HomeWorx HDTV Digital Flat Antenna, which picks up all the networks plus some other odds and ends, in case the zombie apocalypse breaks out and I want to follow it live. We have yet to use it for anything.

Total cost for Netflix and Hulu? $16 a month. Total annual savings? Over $400.

Are we watching less TV? Not really. It’s about what we watched last year, only we’re not paying as much.

Is there anything we’re actually missing? Well, there’s Food Network and … yeah, that’s it. And, honestly, we’re fine without it. It had become the All Guy Fieri All The Time Network, and no one needs that.

I have nothing against TV. Serial storytelling is one of my favorite narrative forms, so I like the expansive opportunities possible on TV, along with the more ambitious quality of the material and better writing in the post-Sopranos/Lost era.

Are we in a new golden age of TV writing? I’ll tell you in ten years. With few exceptions (Dick Van Dyke, Addams Family, Seinfeld), I loathe sitcoms with a deep and abiding passion, so I can’t speak to those intelligently. Reality shows are vile, with the exception of some workplace shows (Dirty Jobs, Pawn Stars, American Pickers).

My favorite TV remains US/UK spy shows from the 60s (The Avengers, The Saint, Danger Man, Prisoner, Man from UNCLE, Mission: Impossible, Wild Wild West, and so on), British mysteries (Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Morse, Lewis, and so on), classic Trek, anthology shows (Twilight Zone, Thriller, Night Gallery, Outer Limits), and interminably long BBC literary adaptations (I get offended if someone tries to do Dickens in fewer than six hours). And, of course, Columbo. I think the writing, production, and acting on Lost, Fringe, Breaking Bad, and others has been phenomenal, but only time will tell if those truly hold up.

I always get slightly irritated when someone sniffs and says, “I don’t watch TV.” It’s a pose. You may not like watching all that much TV–I don’t–but as a medium it’s capable of great artistry, no less so than cinema or theater. And it can do things neither of those format can do: it can take its time, build characters and relationships, and expand on themes and narrative in more depth. At its best, TV can be like a Dickens novel, full of people and incidents woven together in elaborate and interesting ways.

That so much of it is terrible is rather the beside the point: literature, music, film, games, and drama are equally subject to Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of anything is crap”). Streaming media allows you to watch the good stuff while keeping the junk out of your house.

We’re becoming a more intentional culture. There may be fallout from that, as boutique tastes render cultural touchstones like Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey less common, but the internet will likely bridge that gap. We won’t all be gathering around our TVs at the same time to watch the finale of MASH, and though something is lost as that age passes into history, something new will replace it.

Humans have a need not just for story, but for a shared storytelling experience: for the communal aspect of people experiencing drama together, even if the “together” is only by social media. The internet is reshaping the experience of television just as it is reshaping so many other aspects of life. What form it will take, only time will tell.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.