A few months back, I wrote about my disheartening attempt to transition from a pricey cable television package to an ostensibly liberating streaming-only option. If you didn’t read the piece or prefer a visual representation, the upcoming feature film Selma portrays a nearly identical struggle for fundamental freedoms in the face of oppressive tyranny. Literally the only difference between myself and Dr. King is that I’m taller.
Just like MLK’s march to Montgomery led to radical change, so too did my courageous whining about paying a Benjamin each month for 300 HD channels delivered directly into my living room. In a move clearly designed to mitigate the building populist uprising sparked by a piece with four Facebook likes, HBO announced they would offer HBOGo as a standalone streaming service beginning in April.
“His points are irrefutable,” HBO bigwigs said, tears streaming down their faces. “How could we put this person through such a grueling gauntlet? As a white middle class male with enough disposable income to purchase cable, his life is already hard enough.”
Monday, the next domino fell. And it’s arguably even more critical for a coaxial-free future than HBO going cordless. Dish Network’s new streaming service — Sling TV — lets users stream ESPN and ESPN2 without a cable subscription for $20 a month. The package also includes 10 other non-sports channels such as Travel Channel, Food Network, TNT, TBS, and of course, CNN. Now you can watch Don Lemon deliver his verbal diarrhea live on your iPad while simultaneously taking your own dump in the upstairs bathroom.
ESPN is the real the prize for potential cord-cutters, though. Access to live athletic events is the last major chain shackling sports fans to their set-top boxes. As time-shifted viewing became increasingly commonplace over the last seven years, cable upstarts like ESPN, TNT, TBS, FoxSports1 and NBCSN began spending third-world-GDP money on the rights to DVR-proof sporting events — college football, NBA and NCAA basketball, MLB, NHL, NASCAR, EPL soccer and more. Today, we don’t give a second thought when a major professional or college game appears on cable instead of broadcast television. Last week’s inaugural College Football Playoff semifinal games — the rights to which cost $7.3 billion over 12 years — aired exclusively on ESPN (as does next Monday’s title game)*.
*Yeah, that’s Scrooge McDuck money. Believe it or not, it’s also a shrewd investment. The two New Year’s Day semifinals drew an average audience of 28.2 million viewers, more than enough to make both contests the highest-rated broadcasts in cable TV history. And the championship is still to come.
Until Dish’s announcement, televised sports’ steady move away from broadcast exclusivity stopped at the Internet’s door. Fans, accustomed to nearly unlimited availability, balked at transitioning to streaming if it resulted in fewer televised games. Most major networks offer a streaming option, but access always requires a cable subscription. Now there’s a true alternative. But will ESPN’s online-only availability truly trigger a mass cable exodus? I’m still skeptical.
Cord-cutters face two major challenges: access and affordability. HBO and ESPN (via Dish) addressed the first problem fairly well. Price remains prohibitive. My family’s monthly Verizon FIOS package — which includes 200-plus HD channels, HBO, Cinemax, and broadband Internet — costs just over a hundred bucks. Most of the channels go unwatched, but they’re available in case we want to watch a reptile ingest carbon-based garbage or try to understand just what the hell Courtney enjoys so much about the drag queen show.
The bill seems overly expensive…at least until you contrast cable costs with streaming-only options. The Sling TV package will set you back 20 bucks a month. HBO hasn’t announced pricing for their standalone service, but The Information quotes an insider saying that it won’t be less than $15 (the current pay TV retail price). Thirty five dollars for live sports, movies and premium television. Not bad. Now tack on a monthly Internet bill.
As mentioned in the original piece, it’s significantly more expensive to purchase standalone Internet than it is to buy broadband with an accompanying cable package. The cheapest Internet-only FIOS plan is $49.99 with a two-year contract, $74.99 for month-to-month. I pay $40 even for Internet bundled with my cable, and it’s faster than Verizon’s $49.99/$74.99 entry-level option. Even at $50 dollars, consumers will fork over north of $90 per month to receive 12 basic cable channels and HBO online once taxes, modem rentals and fees are tallied.
Here’s what isn’t included in this hypothetical setup that costs roughly five dollars less than my Verizon package: FX, AMC, Discovery, Cinemax, Showtime, NBCSN, NFL Network, FoxSports1, Comedy Central, regional sports networks, or any broadcast network. Sling TV doesn’t let you view more than one program at a time on a single device. Good luck telling your five-year-old that he can’t watch whatever batshit insane cartoon five-year-olds like to watch (is Minecraft a show?) right now because his next orthodontist bill is riding on a walk-on college kicker making a 47-yarder from the left hash. Also, you can’t stream the Sling TV package to your TV without an ancillary device like an Amazon Fire TV Stick or a Roku player. Apple TV and Google Chromecast aren’t currently supported. Oh, and ESPN has a clause in its contract that allows the sports giant to remove itself from the Sling TV lineup if the service hits a certain subscriber number.
Cable, for all its drawbacks, still delivers superior stability and flexibility for the same or even less cost to the consumer. Yes, the industry is staggeringly corrupt. Convicted pedophiles receive better treatment from jailers than paying customers get from cable providers. Still, this is America. We’ll cut 10,000 jobs to bump the share price a penny. Streaming options are rapidly improving. HBO and ESPN weren’t on the table even three months ago. But it’s doubtful the desired sea change will materialize until streaming services can offer comparable value and an equivalent viewing experience at a lesser price.