I used to get irritated when pop-culture writers — especially those who write for this site — would write those cut-the-cord think pieces, because I thought, “Oh well. That’s great. You’ll cut off cable and get one good story out of it, but what the hell are you going to write about now? You don’t have cable anymore!”
Things have changed quickly, however, especially in the last six to nine months. Netflix has increased its number of original programs (and will double it in 2016); Amazon is producing good stuff; Showtime, HBO and even Starz have stand-alone services. AMC and ESPN are available on Sling TV, and almost anything that’s worth watching on network television is on Hulu.
Is it possible now for a television critic to succeed without cable?
About three weeks ago, I decided to find out. As many of you know, I watch a lot of television, sometimes 25-30 episodes a week. What’s kept me from cutting the cord for so long has been the fear that I’d have nothing to write about. In the three weeks since I cut the cord, however, I have had no problem at all keeping up with the shows that I regularly watch.
AMC (The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul) is on Sling TV. The ABC and Fox sitcoms that I watch are on Hulu the next morning. All the HBO and Showtime programming is available on stand-alone services, and as of last week, I can continue to watch Ash vs. The Evil Dead and Flesh and Bone on Starz through a stand-alone app through Amazon Prime. I got myself a cool Amazon Fire TV (which the kids love because you can talk to it), dropped the cable boxes off at Time Warner, and I’ve had no hiccups, in part because much of what I watch now is on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. I’ve only had to make one real change in my weekly schedule: Instead of staying up until 1 a.m. to watch SNL, I watch it on the SNL app first thing Sunday morning (with 1/10th of the commercials).
What’s also cool about HBO, Showtime, and Sling TV is that, if there’s not a show on you’re interested in, you can cancel the service with the click of a button and resubscribe when the shows you watch return. You want HBO for Game of Thrones only? You only have to subscribe to HBO for two months (or just one month, if you wait until the end of the season’s run and binge watch it). That’s $10 for a full season of television, and you don’t have to talk to an annoying customer service rep to end the service.
There are two caveats: First, I am fortunate in that I get screeners from FX for all of their programming, otherwise, I’d have had no way to watch Fargo or You’re the Worst (or The League). Until FX comes along with a streaming app or puts their shows on Hulu the next morning, some of you may be hesitant to cut the cord for fear of losing some of television’s best programming. Moreover, I am concerned about Mr. Robot next summer, because at the moment, USA Network is not available as a stand-alone service, and Mr. Robot is not on Hulu.
The other caveat is the NFL. This is a big deal to many of you, and the supreme irony is that I can watch the Monday Night games on ESPN with the Sling TV app, but I can’t get most of the free network channels until I install a rooftop antenna. I have been reluctant to do so, so far, because my team (the Colts) sucks, and my fantasy teams have shat the bed this season. I’m not missing the NFL (that will change come playoff time). I also understand, however, that Verizon has NFL streaming rights, so next year, I’ll simply switch from AT&T to Verizon and get NFL streaming, which I’ll Chromecast to my television and Bob’s your uncle.
As a television critic, however, there was another issue that concerned me about cutting the cord, and that’s timeliness. Some of these shows don’t arrive on Hulu until the next morning, and I might run into some issues without a DVR.
But here’s the other thing that’s also changed about television coverage in the last year or so: Readers do not give a shit about reviews. Next morning coverage is only important for a handful of shows — Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, True Detective (at the time, anyway) — and that’s about it. No one wants to read a recap anymore, which is fine by me because I didn’t like the format. Readers want analysis and think pieces and Easter Eggs and thematic explorations, which is also fine by me because that’s what I prefer to write.
What readers really don’t want are advance reviews. This really hit home for me in the fall over on Uproxx, which is such a huge site that you can sneeze into Wordpress and get 10,000 page views. We were running reviews of network shows before they debuted, however, and they weren’t getting much traction. I remember writing the Minority Report review and seeing that it had gotten a whopping 503 page views. A blank post could’ve gotten 500 page views on Uproxx.
Another illustration of this is The Walking Dead. I reviewed the sixth season premiere in advance. It was tepidly received, because no one wanted to read it because they hadn’t seen the episode yet. Monday after the episode aired, I wrote a recap/review. It did fully three times the numbers. On Tuesday, I wrote something more akin to an analysis of the episode, and that did ten times the page views. Why? Because no one cares about my opinion. Readers can form their own opinions. You want a second opinion. Go to Twitter: There’s a billion of them. Readers want to know if there’s something they missed; if there’s an interesting theme that developed; if there was foreshadowing; or how a particular episode of television fits into the broader cultural context. It’s like the Star Wars: The Force Awakens coverage that hit the Internet today. Nobody is reading those reviews (and all due respect to my fellow critics, but neither am I). But on Monday, the Star Wars think pieces are going to do bonkers numbers.
People are more interested in reading and discussing posts about shows they’ve already watched than shows that haven’t aired yet or have just aired. We’ve noticed on Pajiba that it’s often to our benefit to wait a day or two after a show airs to write about it, because it gives viewers some time to catch up. Look at Jessica Jones, for instance: We’ve written maybe five or six think pieces about it, and each one seems to do better than the last, because more people have caught up and want to discuss. That bullshit the Internet pulled when the fourth season of Arrested Development debuted and all of us pulled all-nighters to binge the series and purge our thoughts the next morning was absurd. That’s not how people watch television! Episode-by-episode analysis is also useless, because we don’t think of Netflix series in terms of episodes; we think of them in terms of seasons.
I feared this change at first, but I love the way the Internet has evolved. When this site began eleven years ago, we refused press screenings because we wanted to watch movies the way our readers would: By paying $10 and sitting with an audience. (While Kristy and Rebecca now feature reviews from press screenings, the rest of us still watch with regular audiences). That’s the way television coverage works now: We watch when you guys watch. If it’s a huge show, we’re gonna watch it live. If it’s Last Man on Earth or Fresh off the Boat, we’ll catch it a day or two after it airs. Or we’ll save up two or three eps and watch them together. If it’s on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon, we all watch at our own pace. Some of us will have something to say about a show the weekend after it airs; some of will write about it a month later, and that seems to work. If it’s a little-seen show like You’re the Worst, or Fargo in its first season, or The Leftovers in its second, we just have to bang the drum over and over until the audience for those shows develop. That’s OK, too, because it’s not our job — or the Internet’s — to tell you what to think. It’s our job to challenge and enhance and inform what you’re already thinking.
It’s also unbelievably freeing to be without cable for the first time in my adult life. It’s cheaper (I save about $100 a month). There’s not a pile of cables behind the television. I don’t even have to fast-forward through the commercials anymore because there are no commercials (except on Sling TV). We basically live in an a la carte world now, and there’s so much good television out now that we can’t watch it all. We have to pick and choose. Where all else is equal quality-wise, for many of us what we choose to watch may ultimately come down to what is most convenient. For me, that’s anything that I don’t need a cable box to watch.