Is Cable TV Obsolete?

Ok, I guess the obvious answer is no. But I began to examine whether or not I really need cable TV. I’m not talking about switching to satellite to save money to get the same stuff, I talking about dropping the whole concept. This was driven by three main events.

First, I’ve been getting more and more of my entertainment from my PC and the internet. This includes content on my iPod which I can take almost anywhere. I’ve also been watching DVDs on my computer while I do other work.

I’ve been spending less time in front of the TV. In the past I would work on my laptop while watching TV. Now that’s reversed and I’m at the computer while running a DVD, playing music or watching video. My time in front of the TV now is mostly when I want to actually watch something, and that something is usually a DVD. A lot of the TV I do record gets transferred to DVD to be watched on my computer but that’s extra effort so I do that less and less.

Second, the “Now Playing” list on my Tivo became empty. Everything that was worth watching had been watched. It’s true I’ve been more aggressive in deleting marginal shows I don’t want to waste my time on, but the fact is there just wasn’t much there. TV shows used to be my background noise, they no longer are.

Third, Comcast will be raising rates again in February. According to the paper it’s about 3%. My cable rates keep going up and I haven’t received anything noticeable in return. Cable TV has always been one of those utilities I just pay for and take for granted. It’s time to see what I get for the money and what my options are.

So do they deserve the entertainment dollars they get from me? The answer is “No” (at least for me) and here’s why…

I pay $50 a month, $600 a year, for cable TV. This is before taxes, fees and the coming rate increase. So this is the starting point to see if their worth the money. I made a list of all my season passes and wishlists in Tivo. To keep things simple I’ve assumed everything with a wishlist or season pass is something I wanted to keep watching.

My intent was to see how much alternate (and legal) sources for this programming would cost and to see if it was worth using. Worth is determined both by cost and ease of use. But after going through the list it was apparent most of the programs I watched were on broadcast TV. For me, Basic cable is under $13/mth (before taxes, fees and the rate increase). So while I could look into how well rabbit ears would work on my TV and to see what channels I could pick up it just wouldn’t be worth it. So a quick decision to keep at least basic cable was made.

This left me with a much smaller group of shows which I could drill into.
I’m a fan of the Sci-Fi shows Stargate SG-1, Battlestar Galactica, and to a lessor degree Stargate Atlantis. The remaining SG-1 shows (this is it’s last year) would cost me $20 on iTunes. Season passes to the other two would be $35 each. To keep things simple I’ll price SG-1 as a season pass at $35 to allow a replacement when it’s off the air. So we’re talking $105 a year here.

The Daily Show and Colbert Report are each $10 for 16 episodes which is about a month’s worth. So we’ll figure $240 for the year.

I’ll lose three shows: The Closer, Mythbusters and Dr. Who. The Closer and Doctor Who currently come out on DVD which I could rent through Netflix, I’d just be waiting longer. I wouldn’t go out of my way to find any of these three shows so it’s not a major loss.

While having to pay for each show would make me re-evaluate if I actually want the show I’ll assume I want to replace each show. I would save over $100 a year by switching to a “Basic” cable plan and buying the missing shows from iTunes. I’d save $445 with the switch and spend $345 on iTunes. Another way of looking at this is cable is costing me about $8/month ifor ad-hoc viewing of non-network TV. To be fair, It would also be eaten up with three additional iTunes season passes (which is the number of shows I’m losing) so you could say I was getting my monies worth since replacing everything would cost me the same amount as I’m paying now. For me, I’d rather pay the cable company less of my money while paying for (and directly supporting) the specific stuff that I do like.

Having to pay for each show makes really consider how much I like it (which is why cable companies will do anything to avoid ala carte pricing), so I’m likely to save even more by waiting for the DVDs to come out (for a Netflix rental) or just not watching that particular show anymore and getting entertained elsewhere.

As for watching the TV Shows via iTunes, they’re surprisingly watchable. It’s a given that the video quality is less than TV and especially DVD so I wasn’t expecting much. Watching on the iPod isn’t bad either, again with the small screen size I had low expectations so was pleasantly surprised with the result. This is especially true for story driven TV like Law & Order or Dragnet. Now, if you watch something like Battlestar Gallactica specifically for the special effects or action your not going to want to watch it through iTunes. I do find it hard to watch something action oriented like BG on the small iPod screen. I started with free video and became a convert that’s willing to buy TV through iTunes. (Although I’ve yet to consider buying a full length movie through iTunes.)

In short the iTunes video quality is good enough for a lot of what I watch and I value the portability and ease of use.

So I called the cable company and dropped my plan down to Basic cable. To their credit it wasn’t a painful experience. I did sit on hold awhile and they did try to change my mind and also to sell their phone service. But that’s expected and was brief. The final hurdle is a $12 charge and I was tol I had to be home for a tech to visit and put a filter on the line. So wile the service was cut during the appointed time, no tech ever showed up. I guess they wanted to reinforce to me that paying them less was a good idea.