It really started half as an accident, the way most great things do, like penicillin and dipping french fries in soft serve ice cream. Our cable bill had gradually ratcheted up to an unholy amount, and when we moved over the winter, we decided to just get the stripped-down cable that amounts to basically a glorified antenna instead of the 70-channel standard. It would save a few bucks, and if we were happy with it, we could just get one of those actual antenna jobs and then ditch cable entirely. Of course, the experiment was intensified by the cable guy screwing up the install so that none of the cable jacks in the house were live except for the one plugged into the cable modem. So complaints led to assurances that the problem could be fixed for just a $50 service fee, which led to profanity and procrastination. And it left us for some time watching only what the TiVo had recorded before the move and what we could watch online. That turned out to be pretty much everything we ever watched anyway.
A funny thing happened while the movie studios and television networks were throwing hissy fits and lawsuits for the last decade, blaming every downtick in their industry on dastardly internet pirates and taking not the slightest moment of introspection about the quality of their product. They actually realized that perhaps millions of people seeking out and downloading their products was indicative not of a need for a police state, but of a business opportunity.
Go to Google, type the name of a television show. Pretty much everything that’s not on a premium channel like HBO or Showtime is up there now on its own official site in full episode glory. It’s still not perfect; the networks still generally insist on only putting up the last five broadcast episodes, which can be dreadfully confusing when some of those are reruns, but it’s a sight better than it’s ever been before. And some shows have been particularly progressive about the matter. “South Park” has all fourteen seasons up on their website, which has been great since there were about three seasons that I didn’t get to watch for one reason or another a few years back. That’s exactly the promise Internet video has held that the studios have been missing out on for all these years: instant, on-demand content. People weren’t pirating because they were anarcho-communists (well, most of them), but because the networks wouldn’t sell them the product they wanted at any price.
The catch has always been one of revenue, a particularly hilarious obstacle given that this is an industry that quite literally has given its product away for free for over fifty years. They take their content, broadcast it into the atmosphere and then go nuclear when people start watching those moving pictures on a screen plugged into a box under their desk instead of a box on top of their DVD player. While the notion of giving something away for free and charging money for advertisements interspersed throughout it is a patently absurd idea, the networks have already managed to square that circle and get advertisers to buy into the gimmick decades since. The only difference between paying millions to advertise on television and millions to advertise on the Internet is that with the former there’s a delusion of impact that cannot be maintained with the information feedback of the latter.
They haven’t gotten all the way there yet. The fact that the only full episodes of the last season of “The Office” I can watch online right now through Hulu are episodes 1, 4, 5, 10 and 26, because those are the last arbitrarily rerun episodes on broadcast, is just surreal. God forbid you missed episode 25 and don’t want to spoil the ending of the season. If they’d just take the plunge and cut that connection to broadcast entirely, they’d probably get better viewership online. The irony is that if you’re a regular television watcher, this means it’s easier for you to cut the television cord than the sort of person who just lets the TiVo record twenty episodes before marathoning them. If you’re doing that with a show like “The Office,” you might end up SOL watching online, at least until the network decides to toss up a bunch of old seasons during the dead months between seasons. But then, if you do that with shows that keep the entire archive up, you’re just fine.
The one enormous caveat is sports, which tend to be far behind the curve. Despite links on the NFL.com insisting that the game could be watched live online, we never could get the Super Bowl to actually show up on the computer screen and had to watch that on the neutered television instead. That’s pretty damned close to a deal breaker, but if you only watch the big sports that broadcast on network, then you can get that from an antenna instead of paying for cable.
The biggest causality of cutting off cable is that it finishes the execution of channel flipping started by DVRs. I remember the biggest thing I noticed when I first got a TiVo was that I watched far less television, because whenever I turned on the TV, I could easily find something to watch and then I’d shut it off. I rarely would spend an hour mindnumbingly flipping through stations. Switching television watching exclusively to online, there just aren’t channels to flip through in the first place, they’re an unnecessary artifact of a different delivery mechanism. Having retained just the twenty station basic local package, I can tell you, there isn’t much to flip through once you knock off all those miscellaneous channels. PBS has a huge variety of interesting documentaries, and I could really write a thousand words just on the weird stuff I’ve watched over the last few months at midnight on public access, but flipping just becomes an unsatisfactory exercise with so few channels.
The bottom line is that we were able to keep watching everything that we’d been watching before the cord got cut.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.