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The Messy Reality of Cutting the TV Cord

Last year, TowerLine investigated the strategy of dumping cable for cable-like streaming services to get your fix of television entertainment. We broke down the pros and cons of switching services. Many of the same variables that will guide your decision are still in play today: what type of Internet speeds you’ll need, what hardware you have to have, who are the major players. Here’s a look at what we said last year.

Now it’s January 2021 and our world of TV escapism has been transformed. A global pandemic moved us indoors. Consumers find themselves spending more time in their homes, and particularly, in front of screens. Our entertainment options have changed: movie theaters are closed, new streaming services surfaced and service prices continue to fluctuate.

If you’re still thinking about hanging onto cable, or breaking your pay TV habit, here are some late-breaking developments that may change your thinking about how to indulge your viewing habits. Be forewarned, though—the world of television viewing options is a bit chaotic.

Option One-Cutting the cord
By definition, cord cutting simply means foregoing or canceling a traditional television subscription to select individual internet-based streaming services. In 2020, the pandemic accelerated the streaming revolution. The main driver to switch is to save money.

But over the past 12 to 18 months, streaming services have been raising prices. In addition, the streaming landscape has become more complex and muddled:

  • Dizzying choices. It used to be a simple choice: Netflix or Hulu. But now, content is divided amongst over 300 streaming services, providing all sorts of boutique, custom options and pricing tiers. Consumers are getting frustrated. Content is scattered across competing platforms. To get what you want, more subscriptions might be necessary.
  • Channel bloat. Live TV channels are being added to many of the streaming bundles—raising the prices. They’re still cheaper than cable, but the savings might not be as large as you expect. In addition, some streamers offer ability to customize their bundle with add-ons.
  • No central hub. Trying to find simple, accessible TV menus or guides is getting more difficult as integration between devices and streamers is deteriorating.
  • Less new programming. The original content that streaming was known for was decimated by lockdowns over the past few months as none of the companies were able to produce the new TV shows or movies they heavily rely on. At the same time, shows are disappearing from streaming platforms, usually due to new licensing deals.
  • Paying for it all. The average viewer subscribes to around three or four streaming services, meaning more bills to juggle each month.

On the streaming horizon
The short-term prospects are irritating. With prices for individual services continuing to increase, the savings equation may not add up anymore. And at this point, the industry is starting to look not much more than a fragmented digital cable package. Cord-cutters are beginning to wonder “isn’t this why I abandoned cable?”

According to the home entertainment website TechHive, “That doesn’t necessarily mean going back to cable is a better option, but it does mean cord-cutters will have to make bigger sacrifices to save money, either by giving up channels they’d like to have or by dropping expensive bundles altogether.”

Option 2-Sticking with Cable/Pay TV
If you think choosing streaming for TV was messy, it’s not any better on the live TV side. With so many subscribers leaving, is cable dying? According to research from eMarketer, the cable, satellite and telecom TV industry is on track to lose the most subscribers ever.

With streaming taking up most of the viewing pie, media companies have changed strategies:

  • Unscripted TV. Cable giants are providing more emphasis on lower-cost “niche” channels (those without scripted shows—such as Food Network and HGTV) that can provide new content, even during the lockdown.
  • Noticing a lot of repeats? Repeated showings of the same content has proliferated, as it still generates revenue—advertisers still need to advertise.
  • Fewer channels. Pay TV operators look to cut programming costs by merging or removing channels. The new focus? See the next bullet.
  • If you can’t beat ’em. There’s one thing that’s not going anywhere—the Internet. Pay TV providers in most cases are also the provider of your Internet. As a result, many have been developing their own streaming markets. (Think of newer offerings such as Disney Plus, HBO Max and Peacock.)

People stick with their existing setup for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’re a sports fan who wants to watch Fox Sports—which is missing from the most popular live TV services. Maybe you want a combination of TV channels that aren’t available through streaming. Or, you can’t live without appointment television.

If you stick with broadcast TV today, the price is still higher when compared to streaming. There continue to be monthly carriage fees for the network channels and sports broadcasting. You still need to rent cable boxes.

On the live TV horizon
According to TechHive, “TV networks are implementing a hodgepodge of price tiers, add-ons, and content windows, all in hopes of winning over cord-cutters without shattering precious old business models…As a result, there’ll be “a phase of ugly experimentation as these companies figure out what they can get away with.”

“There’s always a trade-off to these kinds of decisions, and…as more media companies figure out how to extricate themselves from cable and its declining subscriber numbers, things will only get messier.”

The bottom line
We asked for the great unbundling. Now we are paying for it. We have a plethora of options at our fingertips, giving us more efficient ways of watching movies and enjoying our favorite shows. But with so much market flux in the broadcast industry, we will most likely need to reassess which route to go if we want to continue to save in 2021.

Resources: TechHive, The McGill Business Review, eMarketer.com, ThatHelpfulDad.com, Consumer Reports