Is à la carte cable really the answer?

There’s a growing demand for “à la carte” cable pricing — i.e. the ability to pick and choose just the individual channels you want.

After all, why pay for stuff you aren’t using?  You don’t want the electric company forcing you to keep your lights on when you’re not home.  Paying only for the TV that you plan to consume makes sense.  More choice and lower bills?  Sign me up!  Right?

Wouldn’t it be nice to order cable like we order dim sum?

There’s just one problem with that line of thinking.   There isn’t a direct correlation between the bulk of your cable bill and the number of channels your receive.  Choice is definitely good, but we could wind up paying more for less.  A lot less.

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Not all TV viewers were created equal…

Some viewers are simply more valuable than others. No, I’m not talking about the precious 18-49 demo. CBS has been doing just fine going after all the eyeballs they can, even those with cataracts. I’m talking about the fact that how you choose to watch a TV show significantly affects your power as a viewer. Here’s my list, from the most powerful way to watch to the least:

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So you want to break up with your cable company…

There’s nothing worse than staying in a bad relationship way past it’s natural expiration date, yet that’s what always winds up happening. We worry we can’t find anything better. We focus too much on the few good times, not enough on the multitudes of bad ones. We deceive ourselves into thinking things will get better.

That’s why I’m here.

I’m here to tell you can do better.

I’m here to tell you that things don’t have to be this way.

I’m here to tell you how to break up with your cable company.

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Cable Boxes are Evil

From 1950 to 1980, watching TV was super easy: All you had to do was remember what time your favorite shows would be on and then turn a knob to tune in.  So simple.  The process required less than 0.0000001% of your brain power, freeing America to do some pretty cool things during that time span, like walk on the moon, march for civil rights, and impeach a president.

Then came a wolf in sheep’s clothing that sought to annihilate the elegant simplicity of TV watching: The Cable Box.   Sure it came with dozens of enticing channels, but it rendered useless the TV’s own dial and it made hooking up a VCR a complicated mess.  It also made life hell for every 10 year old boy who was forced to become their home’s I.T. guy.

Fortunately, electronics manufacturers saw a need for simplicity, and they started sticking cable tuners right into a multitude of devices. The result:  cable-ready TVs & VCRs that relegated cable boxes only to those who desperately needed to buy pay-per-view programs (i.e. boxing & porn) or unscramble premium channels (i.e. less interesting boxing and simulated porn). Thus the 1990’s became the golden age of cable: 60 to 70 additional channels, no special box required.  With that hassle eliminated, America saw it’s greatest decade of prosperity since the end of World War II.   We even had time to impeach another president.

But then the cable companies fought back. “Sure you can get up to 70 channels with no box,” they said in a dark alley behind the middle school, “but that’s BASIC cable. Wouldn’t you like something better? Something DIGITAL?” Ooh, digital cable. Hundreds of channels! Better sound and video quality! The ability to watch movies on demand! “Sounds great!” we shouted, “but what’s the catch?”

“That’s the best part,” they responded. “There isn’t one!”

Ah, but there was.

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10 Observations About Hulu Plus on the PS3

Hulu's App for the PS3

1.  My computer has been hooked up to my living room TV for a while now, so Hulu is no stranger to my big screen, but the PS3 interface is a much more natural fit for TV shows than a web browser.   Overall, it feels nice and polished, and using it is a pleasant experience.

2. When you start watching a TV show on the PS3, then switch over to watching it on another device, you can pick up right where you left off. Very nice touch.

3. If you have multiple Hulu-friendly devices, Hulu Plus is well worth the ten bucks a month for the added accessibility alone.

4. On the other hand, if you don’t have multiple Hulu-friendly devices, it’s a waste of money.   If you have no need or desire to watch Hulu on anything but your computer, Hulu Plus isn’t for you.  Aside from a back catalog of just a few shows you might actually watch, Hulu Plus offers little you can’t get on Hulu’s free regular service (actually it offers less — see #5).

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My Summer Experiment

On Memorial Day I did something I thought I’d never, ever do.  I cancelled my cable.  Like many, many people, I looked at my cable bill (about $100/month) and wondered if I really watched THAT much TV.  Unlike most people, though, I’m not trying to create a cheaper alternative by watching TV via the internet.  I’m trying to create a better solution.

I mean, if I just bought every episode of every show I watched for $2 on iTunes, would that even come close to $100?  I work in TV, I grew up with TV as my babysitter, I truly believe TV is in a golden age of quality right now (reality TV aside), and I still don’t think I watch 50 episodes per month.  So if I just bought every show a la carte, not only would I get the same time shifted content I get via a DVR, but I’d also have the choice to watch it wherever I want — on my TV, on my laptop, on my iPad, or even on my iPhone.

That right there is an improvement.

The two downsides?  No live content.  And no option to start watching things the same night they aired (iTunes content doesn’t appear until the next day).

So it’s not a perfect system by any means.  At least not yet.  Like I said, it’s an experiment, and I’m going play with different variables all summer.  I’m giving myself a $100/month budget to acquire as much content as I can through legal means.

Here’s the equipment I already have to work with:

  1. A desktop computer already hooked up to a large TV
  2. laptop
  3. PS3
  4. Wii
  5. iPad
  6. iPhone

If I have to buy any new equipment, like an Xbox or an Apple TV, I’ll divide the cost by twelve and count that amount against the 100 bucks/month I’ve allotted myself.

I’ll be checking back in over the summer to share tips and tricks that I’ve found…


ps – so you know, I don’t consider having to actually load up a web page just to watch a single TV show an improvement over cable… I’m going to avoid that as much as possible.