Nearly two years ago, in my June 13, 2013, “Into the Next Stage” column, I focused not on media but the technology used to view it in the home by wrting about a trend that was at the time called “unbundling” or “cable cutting.” (Online at http://tinyurl.com/otn45ad)
The gist of the article was that this trend, now commonly called “cord cutting,” was a great way to still watch stuff you like and save money on your monthly full-service cable TV bill — which can easily top more than $100 a month — by opting out of paying for cable or satellite TV service.
It’s not, however, truly “cord cutting” because you’ll still need to buy broadband, aka high-speed Internet access, usually through the cable company. Doing that and using a streaming box like ones made by Roku or Apple in conjunction with a subscription or two to a less-expensive service (like Netflix, Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime Video for less than $10 a month each) is where the savings come in, especially if you live where you can get a clean signal for digital, over-the-air (OTA) broadcast TV, which is free.
If you’re a fan of live sporting events, this can be important, since many high-profile sports events are still available from traditional networks. Same for TV shows and news that are still OTA.
For that, you’ll most likely need one of the newfangled antennas that make TV aerials of yesteryear look like relics. I have a Mohu Sky 60 in my attic now and it’s terrific. More on that later.
Part of what motivated me to become a “cord cutter” was, of course, the savings. I don’t know about you, but it bugs the heck out of me to pay for a service that I don’t much use, especially with regard to cable channels that I pay for but never watch. In 2013, however, the concept of “a la carte” viewing — namely, just paying for the channels you wanted — was wishful thinking.
In the intervening couple of years, however, not only has cord cutting accelerated, but there have also been many new developments in hardware, software and trends, including true a la carte offerings from at least one provider, Verizon’s FiOS. (Unfortunately, FiOS, which uses superfast fiber optic lines instead of copper cables, is limited in its availability. If you have it, consider yourself fortunate!)
Just this year, Dish Network debuted its Sling TV service and while it’s not truly a la carte, it’s a good deal for an inexpensive price. More on this as well.
Since 2013, streaming’s growth has accelerated, and cable and satellite TV subscriptions have begun to decline. On Monday, a report was issued by MoffettNathanson that said: “U.S. pay-TV providers lost video subscribers in 1Q, marking the first time the industry has contracted during a traditionally strong period of the year. That brought the rate of subscriber decline to 0.5% over the past 12 months — the fastest on record.”
While it’s not huge, it’s definitely being felt by the pay TV providers, who no doubt fear this could be like the snowball rolling down the mountain that becomes an avalanche of defectors.
Since 2013, premium service HBO has become available via streaming for a monthly fee of $15 (HBO Now is only available at present for owners of an Apple TV streaming device) and rival Showtime is expected to follow suit with its own “over-the-top,” as these services are called, offering.
Furthermore, when you subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, HBO Now, et al, you can watch those services quite easily on a smartphone, tablet or computer via wi-fi. It’s kind of cool for doing mindless chores.
Even traditional broadcast networks have joined the over-the-top trend, with CBS All Access becoming available for about $6 per month. While I didn’t need it, the latter might be worth it if your over-the-air capability is lacking and if you want to rewatch a recent favorite show that you missed, presuming you don’t have a standalone digital video recorder for over-the-air programming like that offered by TiVo’s Roamio or ChannelMaster.
Showing that the cost of cord cutting can add up if you’re not careful, the Roamio charges a monthly fee. No thanks on that. The ChannelMaster over-the-air DVR is, however, supposed to be like the old-style VCRs where you pay for it once and don’t get dinged just to be able to use it. The version with built-in 1 TB of storage sells for $399 but the better deal is the unit with 16 GB of storage for $249; you can attach it to an external hard drive (a 1 TB hard drive can be had for less than $70) and load up on stuff to watch at your convenience.
Also on the hardware front, about a month after that June 2013 column, Google introduced its Chromecast — a small streaming video “dongle” with an HDMI connector on one end that sells for less than $35 and can plug directly into the back of your flatscreen TV.
Roku also came out with its own version, called the Streaming Stick. Amazon, meantime, released its own Fire TV Stick. So, a traditional streaming box is no longer a requirement — but they do have their advantages, like plugging in a USB flash drive into a Roku box to view digital photos.
TVs, meantime, have also upgraded since 2013, with 4K or Ultra HD flatscreens available now. They have superior screen resolutions, better than the high-def 1080p TVs that began to catch on around the turn of the millennium.
Incidentally, most of the bigger flatscreen TVs, whether 4K or HD, are already available as smart TVs that come with built-in capability for most of the aforementioned streaming services; same goes for many Blu-Ray players, which will soon be available to play 4K or Ultra HD Blu-Ray discs. The upgrades never end!
If you were in the market for a flatscreen, it seems to me that paying extra for a 4K version would be the way to stave off “obsolescence” or 4K envy. Once you see the pictures onscreen in a side-by-side comparison, well, there’s no comparison; you’ll want the 4K.
As for my set-up, unlike in 2013, I do now have a big flatscreen, mounted on the wall. The CRT TV with the smaller screen that was also heavier and bulkier is history. I have the new TV connected to the Mohu Sky 60 in the attic, not unlike what’s in the picture accompanying this.
Fortunately, where I live I’m able to get a very good over-the-air signal. I upgraded from the Mohu Leaf flat antenna, which was good, but the Mohu Sky is better — except in one instance. While the Leaf didn’t pick up as many channels as I wanted or as reliably, it did pick up Channel 13, KCOP; the Sky gets the signals for Channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 11 in a much more stable fashion than the Leaf did, but the Sky doesn’t get 13. To me, that’s a trade-off I can live with.
As for streaming services, I have Netflix and it’s still the best, by far. Amazon Prime Video is good and getting better — but it still trails Netflix. The justification for getting it, however, is the Amazon Prime free delivery, so if you buy a lot of stuff from Amazon, the $99-a-year fee that gets you the Prime Video is a solid bonus — and I’ve been amazed by how quickly Amazon delivers its merchandise.
I’ve tried the one-week trials for Hulu Plus and CBS All Access, but to me they aren’t vital, so I didn’t subscribe to them. One that may be worth a second look, however, is Sling TV. I did the one-week trial, plus the kids’ package, since my kids like Disney XD. The basic package is normally $20 a month; the kids’ package is an additional $5. But here’s the thing: with Sling TV, you get CNN, TNT, TBS, AMC, Food Network, A&E, History, HGTV, IFC, Travel Channel, Bloomberg and a bunch more — and, for sports fans, ESPN and ESPN2.
The Kids Extra will, for $5 more, get you Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV and Duck TV. (There are other packages available, too, for Spanish programming, entertainment programming, etc.) But as of now, it is unavailable on Apple TV.
I’d have to say, however, that Sling TV is still a bit buggy and how you have your wi-fi router set up in your home may make a difference. Like other streaming services, you can also watch it on your smartphone, not just on your TV at home. If it can improve and if the extra $20 a month can be justified, Sling TV is a strong option for cord cutters.
The other addition I have since 2013 is an Apple TV. Since I’ve been invested in the Apple ecosystem for years, it made sense to get one, especially for its Airplay option that lets you “beam” what’s on your iPhone or iPad onto your big screen TV. The iTunes integration is good, too. Unfortunately, it seems like I needed both a Roku and an Apple TV to do everything I wanted. Switching back and forth is no problem, though.
I can’t close without mentioning YouTube. It’s now ubiquitous, available on Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast (naturally, since their both Google products), smart TVs, etc. If you have kids, they’re probably watching this more than any other streaming services — and there’s no monthly fee.
If you have any stories of cord cutting, write me and share your experiences.
Apps Dept.: Since the arrival of the Apple iPhone in 2007, apps used on it have touched almost every aspect of quotidian life. One that I’m checking into is called Foodie Shares. I hope to have a full report on it soon – I think it’s one that anyone who has attended a Japanese American community event that was a potluck might like. There are some great cooks out there and Foodie Shares might be a way to monetize one’s culinary skills. More to come!
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.