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I cut the cord (dropped cable TV and switched to online streaming services) back in 2013 and haven’t looked back since. This is a trend that’s been growing for quite a while now and it’s becoming clear that people just aren’t happy with cable anymore.
In fact, the second quarter of 2016 alone saw over 800,000 pay-TV subscribers in the U.S. jump ship for better alternatives — and not only is it the biggest quarterly loss that the pay-TV industry has ever seen, but there’s still a “gradual increase in the decline rate”.
But this is somewhat misleading. Between Comcast and DirecTV, there are still over 40 million pay-TV subscribers in the U.S., which means cord-cutters are still a tiny minority. Why aren’t people cutting the cord? Here’s why.
Slow Internet Speeds and Data Caps
In order to cut pay-TV, you have only two options: either you stop watching anything but free network TV OR you pay for an alternative — and since most cord-cutters still want to watch TV, most of them opt for the latter.
At this time, the only alternative to pay-TV is TV-over-internet and the sad truth is that TV-over-internet requires a lot of bandwidth and data if you want anything close to an enjoyable experience.
How much bandwidth and how much data do you need? Well, based on Netflix’s estimates and recommendations:
- About 5 MB per minute on Low quality.
- About 12 MB per minute on Medium quality.
- About 50 MB per minute on HD quality.
- About 115 MB per minute on Ultra HD quality.
In my case, I’m paying $70 per month for “up to 25 Mbps” bandwidth from Comcast, which translates as 3 MB per second (or 180 MB per minute). That’s my theoretical best speed. Internet performance can dip at peak hours, and when it does, it impacts my video streaming experience.
If you have a monthly cap on data, it gets even worse (unless you’re enrolled in something like T-Mobile’s Binge-On program), and let’s not forget that a lot of folks around the country can’t afford or don’t have access to high-speed internet. For them, cutting the cord doesn’t make sense.
Poor Coverage of Live Events
Perhaps the biggest pitfall of cutting the cord, the one that keeps getting repeated over and over again, is the fact that television still dominates the realm of live event coverage: news, sports, concerts, award shows, etc.
To be fair, producers have been catching on and are now more likely to provide online streams that you can tune into. For example, you can watch Major League Soccer games online if you get MLS Live. NBC also offered online streams for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
But for the most part, it’s still tough. Sports games can sometimes be blacked out for online viewers, for example, so it’s still safer to get a cable sports package if you’re afraid of missing out on important games.
Live news is also hard to get online, especially if you want cable news, and if you want to watch new episodes of your favorite TV shows as they air, it’s tough to do that online because most services — like Hulu — usually have a one-day delay or more.
Cord-cutting advocates sometimes point to services like Sling TV to say that you can stream live TV through Sling TV and watch it online that way, but there are downsides to consider (such as the poor value of a-la-carte, which we cover down below).
Too Many Options to Pick From
Let’s say you want to cut the cord. How do you go about it?
First you have to find a streaming service, or multiple streaming services, that offer the kinds of shows and movies you like to watch at a fair price — which often means deciding between the three giants: Netflix, Prime Video, and Hulu.
Most people don’t even get that far. It takes too much time and effort to sift through their differences, and the problem gets worse when you throw in all of the niche alternative streaming sites that are necessary if you want to watch non-mainstream content.
Whereas with pay-TV, everything comes in a bundle and there are only a handful of bundles to choose between.
If you do get this far and know which streaming services you want, you then have to decide how you’re going to watch them. If you’re fine watching it all on a computer, then your decision is easy. If you want to watch on your TV, however, you’ll need to do more research and pick a compatible streaming device.
And that’s not even mentioning the fact that you have to juggle a bunch of different subscriptions, whereas pay-TV is a single easy-to-pay bill. The hassle alone is a huge barrier to cord-cutting.
Rising Prices, Falling Value
If you ask cord-cutters for the primary reason why they went ahead and dropped pay-TV, most of them will tell you that they did it to save money. These folks were paying over $100/mo just to watch a handful of channels when they could get Netflix for just $10/mo.
Is Netflix worth the money? It absolutely is! It’s so worth it that we recently argued that everybody should be happier to pay more for it, and other services like Prime Video, Hulu, HBO NOW, etc. are all similarly worthwhile too.
But only in isolation. If you start stacking too many of these a-la-carte services on top of each other, you could end up paying as much as you did for cable in the first place.
Each service has unique content worth watching: Netflix originals, Prime Video exclusives, Hulu originals, HBO originals, and even YouTube Red has some interesting stuff. Want to watch it all? Well, that’ll cost you at least $10 + $8 + $12 + $15 + $10 = $55 per month.
Add in the cost of the high-speed internet connection that you’ll need for a pleasant viewing experience and you’ll start to wonder if cutting the cord is worth it after all.
Pay-TV seems to make even more sense when you also consider the fact that cable companies regularly offer incredible promotional deals when you bundle TV with internet — and if you’re going to pay for internet anyway, these bundles are an insane value where pay-TV ends up being much cheaper than you might have thought.
Non-cord-cutters know this. And if you know how to game the systems behind these promotional deals, you can stay at promo rates year after year.
Restrictions and Limitations
One common complaint that we get when we cover content changes to the Netflix catalog is that the changes only apply to the U.S. version of Netflix, and this highlights a huge problem for cord-cutters: you don’t always get what you pay for.
If you aren’t in the U.S., the restricted content library of your local version of Netflix is actually a valid reason to forget about it and move on (unless you’re willing to set up a VPN to get around such restrictions).
So when people say that services like Netflix mean you don’t have to a pirate anymore, it may not be that simple.
Cable TV “Just Works”
Believe it or not, many streaming services are still too complicated for mainstream viewers, and I’m not just talking about the tech-illiterate or the elderly. I’ve met millenials who couldn’t navigate Netflix, Prime Video, or Hulu.
Indeed, poor user interface design has been a huge problem across streaming services for quite some time. It’s inefficient at best, and frustrating at worst.
In a lot of ways, pay-TV is just… easier. Everyone understands the concept of a channel: each channel is associated with a single number and plays its own brand of TV shows. Want to switch to a different channel? Enter the number or hit Channel Up/Down.
Pay-TV is also predictable. You can get home from work and flip to the same channels at the same times on the same days of the week to watch the same shows that you’ve been watching for months or years. The schedule does change between seasons, but even that is cyclic and therefore predictable.
And then there’s the “issue” of channel surfing — an activity so ingrained into the television generation that watching TV simply feels wrong without it. We’ve argued before that this is actually a reason to cancel cable TV, but obviously subscriber numbers show that not everyone agrees.
For a significant number of people, all of the pros and cons of cutting the cord are moot points. The only thing that truly matters at the end of the day is the ability to plop down on the couch, turn on their TV set, and mindlessly jump from channel to channel with a single button.
Momentum and Inertia
The other thing to note is that pay-TV subscribers also have access to tools like TiVo and the ability to record TV shows when they’re away from home so they can come back later and watch it at their own convenience.
“That sounds like Netflix but worse,” you might say, but think of it like this: if you already have pay-TV and you already get all of the channels you want and you think the price is fair, then why cut the cord when you can just set up TiVo and record what you want to watch and get the on-demand experience anyway?
For many, that’s what it comes down to. Not only is pay-TV often easier to use, but they already have momentum as a cable subscriber and it isn’t worth the effort — for them, at least — to go through the hassle of cutting the cord.
So, Why Haven’t You Cut the Cord Yet?
There are other reasons why people haven’t left pay-TV yet, including reasons that involve moral or practical stands against the whole idea of on-demand streaming (like how it can contribute to or exacerbate depression).
And then there are people like me for whom the above stipulations don’t really apply; my internet is fast and cap-free, I’m in the U.S., and I only subscribe to three services so the overall cost is low. Which means we’re quite happy with all cord-cutting has to offer.
Have you or have you not cut the cord yet? If so, which streaming services do you pay for? If not, can you pinpoint the reason(s)? Let us know in the comments below!
Image Credits: zimmytws via Shutterstock, MSSA via Shutterstock, Jamesbin via Shutterstock