Hello, it’s me: the fabled millennial cord-cutter.
I didn’t set out to live a cable-free life, but my age and interests happened to coincide with a major shift in how we get our video entertainment. And while I’m not an expert – I don’t work for an entertainment company and I’m no more tech savvy than most people in my demographic – my experience may shed some light on how we ended up with nearly as many TV apps as TV channels.
My path toward cord-cutting began, as so many people’s did, with Netflix. I was a big Netflix fan back when it was still disrupting Blockbuster Video. As a college student and in the years following graduation, I worked my way through a lot of movies – not to mention all of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – a couple of mailed DVDs at a time. If I’m honest, part of me still misses the days when you could use your Netflix queue as a fairly comprehensive “movies to watch” list.
Since I was already a loyal Netflix subscriber at a time in my life when cable TV seemed financially out of reach, Netflix’s streaming service was at first a handy add-on to my existing DVD habit. In the early days, I used it mostly to catch up on movies I’d missed in theaters, and the service’s selection was only so-so, especially compared to its expansive DVD library. Streaming also mainly meant watching movies on my laptop, which has never been my favorite viewing method. But the price was right. I assumed I’d eventually upgrade to cable when my financial situation allowed for the change. After all, I missed Turner Classic Movies.
But then came Hulu – and for a while, Hulu’s partnership with the Criterion Collection, which scratched my classic and art film itch. For a monthly price similar to Netflix’s, I could catch up on some current TV shows and also stream “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” on a whim. Paying for both Netflix and Hulu was still only a fraction of what cable TV would have cost, which made the math easy.
Fast forward about eight years. I’ve lost “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” because Hulu lost the Criterion Collection – first to FilmStruck and more lately to a Criterion standalone service that will debut later in 2019. (I can, however, rent the film from Amazon for less than $5.) I still subscribe to Netflix and Hulu, and these days I can view their offerings beautifully through my TV using a Roku streaming box, or my Chromecast dongle if I happen to be traveling. And I never got around to that cable subscription.
There’s a whole universe of streaming content out there, but it doesn’t come cheap. We cord-cutters can easily wind up paying as much or more as our traditional cable-buying peers. A lot of those peers are adding streaming services on top of their cable bills, too. Meanwhile, these services are multiplying faster than any single person can keep up.
Roku is one of the most recent entrants into the streaming game. In 2017 the company premiered The Roku Channel, which allows viewers to watch various ad-supported films and TV shows without a subscription fee. Now Roku is stepping up its game by letting users pay to add premium subscriptions to channels like Showtime and Starz. (HBO is notably absent, at least at launch.)
Hulu and Amazon have already standardized the practice of allowing subscribers to add premium channels one at a time. And most premium channels offer a way to subscribe directly, too. That means that if you are, say, a Showtime fan, you now have your choice of ways to get the channel’s streaming content: You can use your cable provider login to access its app or website; you can subscribe to Showtime’s streaming service directly; or you can add that subscription on to your Roku, Hulu or Amazon Prime account. Generally, there is no substantial price difference in getting a channel directly or as an add-on, though sometimes services will run short-term discounts for new subscribers.
If you’re a bit overwhelmed at this point, you are not alone. My mother recently retired, and she and I have had a series of conversations about whether it might make sense for her and my father to ditch cable and move to streaming only. But their situation differs from mine in a few ways. First, they are longtime cable subscribers, and they find their current DVR setup intuitive and mostly easy to navigate. Factoring in the frustration involved in totally changing the way they watch TV is not strictly a financial decision, but it was definitely a factor I didn’t want to brush aside.
My parents are also sports fans. My father watches a lot of baseball, and my mother is an avid supporter of the Indianapolis Colts. (To her chagrin, this fandom filtered down to me only in a vague fondness for Peyton Manning and a “never forgive, never forget” stance toward “deflategate.”) And, since we’re good Hoosiers, NCAA’s March Madness remains something akin to a holiday observance in my childhood home.
Now, unlike several years ago, you can get sports without cable. But unless your viewing habits are very narrow, this basically requires subscribing to a service like DirecTV Now or Hulu’s Live TV, which more or less exist to mimic a classic cable package. Crunching the numbers may mean that one service is cheaper than another, and you still may be technically ditching cable, but monthly subscriptions run between $40 and $80. (Sling TV offers some slightly cheaper options, with spottier channel coverage.) Subscribing to a live TV bundle like this may make sense depending on which channels you want, but for my parents, keeping cable makes more sense – for now.
As I told my mother, the quickly changing world of streaming means that it also makes sense to review your streaming subscription approach pretty regularly. I try to give my lineup serious thought at least once a year. First, I start by listing what I’m paying for right now and honestly considering whether I’m still using each service. If I did such a review today, it might look something like this:
Netflix: Despite its recently announced price increase and the fact it will soon be losing Marvel and other Disney content to Disney’s upcoming proprietary service, Netflix is still safe. I’m simply hooked on too much of its original content to let it go. It is also very important that I maintain access to “The Great British Baking Show” at all times.
Hulu: I like being able to participate in conversations about certain shows while they air, which means waiting for a whole season to turn up on Netflix or Amazon months later isn’t always ideal. And while I can get NBC and CBS (though seldom ABC or Fox) over the air with my digital antenna, if I happen to have plans on Thursday night, I want to catch up on “The Good Place” as soon as possible. I also don’t mind putting up with ads, which means that my monthly price just dropped – thanks, Hulu.
Amazon Prime Video: I’d probably drop this one if it were a stand-alone offering, but I subscribe to Prime for a variety of reasons, which means this is part of that package deal. I’ll keep enjoying “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” while I’ve got it.
HBO Now: I am certain I’m not the only person who subscribed to this service primarily to keep up with “Game of Thrones.” While I watch and enjoy a variety of movies and TV shows on this service, it is also my most expensive streaming subscription. After “Game of Thrones” ends this spring, I may drop it. (Sorry, “Westworld.”)
Between the four paid services above and free offerings like Kanopy, I have access to more than enough entertainment; I can’t honestly say I need anything else. But if I drop HBO, I may replace it with the new Criterion service I mentioned, or I may get around to upgrading my PBS app access. Even now, if I want specific shows or films I can’t get through a subscription, I can pay for many of them a la carte through Amazon or Google. The truth is that I don’t have time to watch a fraction of the content I already pay for.
As organizing expert – and newly made Netflix star – Marie Kondo might advise, check regularly to see if your subscriptions continue to “spark joy.” If they don’t, there are an increasing number of streaming services, big and small, ready to fill the gap.