I turn 30 this month, and it feels like I am one of the few people my age who watches cable TV and is willing to pay for it. Truth is, I hate watching shows on my computer—or worse, my phone. Give me new episodes in real-time, on a real TV. I know I’m on the wrong side of history, but I also know I’m not the only one.
You might’ve cut the cable cord long ago, and you say it’s the best thing you’ve ever done in your life. Maybe you’ve even gotten rid of your television set altogether. All entertainment viewing is done on your computer, cherry-picked show by show. For you, local news and weeknight Jeopardy! went out with answering machines and Blockbuster video.
Many, many of my friends and acquaintances have done the same. They’re among the 4 million Americans who’ve ditched cable in the last five years for Netflix or Hulu Plus, or maybe use Roku, Sling TV, or Apple TV to beam their on-demand internet shows to the big screen.
Don’t get me wrong—I went without cable for a good chunk of the last decade, too. No TV set, either! So what did I do? I ended up watching shows on my laptop, lying in my bed with my head propped on my pillow, navigating Hulu menus and probably worsening my already-encroaching carpal tunnel syndrome and misaligned spine.
I torrented missed episodes days later, or went on wild goose chases on popup-spewing sites for some pirated video that was thrown up by fans in China overnight. Playing link roulette on SideReel, tracking down the latest Mad Men, guilt-addled, only to watch my favorite show in 480p (or worse). It wasn’t fun.
Throw in those annoying dead pixels, wifi hiccups, open tabs or Facebook constantly beckoning, and the show-watching experience started to feel more like a chore than something I excitedly set aside 30 to 60 minutes of my day on anticipated weeknights to do.
So I wised up and got a TV. Here’s where I’ll lose you—I also signed up for a cable plan. You might be saying, “I already watch all my favorite shows on a TV—without cable!” There are many options available to us: Google Chromecast, Apple TV, Amazon Fire. But I want to watch shows live, as episodes air for the very first time.
Sure, binge-watching online exclusives has its own satisfaction. You clear your weekend to unapologetically draw the shades, stockpile the snack food, and devote two sunups and sundowns to House of Cards season 3. And yet, there’s still something I like about watching shows the old-fashioned way. When Mr. Robot was on earlier this year, I actively looked forward to Wednesday nights, because I knew that 60 minutes of escape were awaiting me at 10 p.m. It was something I eagerly awaited all week, and I got to watch it at the same time as other viewers, checking my phone in between commercials to scroll through funny tweets and GIFs that made me feel like I was part of the fandom.
Watching shows online later is a type of asynchronous activity that just makes it less fun for me. At work the next day there’s no “What did you think of last night’s Gotham?!” around the proverbial water cooler.
Plus? Cable gives you options. Lots and lots of options. Maybe, too many options. For me, I like turning on the TV and being surprised at what’s on. Also, I’m lazy. I think “curation” and “customization” just spell extra work. I don’t care about fashioning a personalized list of my recommendations on Netflix, and I have zero interest in sharing them with friends on Facebook or whatever.
With cable, you can crash on the couch after a long day, start channel surfing, and it’s like, “Sure, I’ll watch this woman marry a carnival ride on My Strange Addiction, why not?” Or, “Holy shit, Jumanji—I haven’t seen this in years.”
Yes, there are commercials, and yes, they can be a pain; a lot are awful. But I’m going to go out on a limb, here: I don’t mind commercials. I actually like some of them! Also, it’s not like they don’t exist on the internet. They do, and as advertisers get smarter, we’ll see even more of them in the future. Truthfully, for me, commercials are even worse online. Even if you have an ad blocker installed, sites like Hulu have found ways around it. The web is also all about instantaneous satisfaction, so commercials (oops, excuse me, “custom ad experiences”) feel more like inescapable torture, immune to clicks and skips, and less like natural breaks like they do on TV.
Don’t think I’m some paid Comcast rep or a technological philistine. There’s a lot of crap on cable, I agree. There are nights when I scroll through the menus of literally hundreds of channels, and wonder what the hell I’m paying for. Also, to be fair, I split my cable costs with two roommates. Would I be willing to pay over $100 a month by myself just so I can have My 600 Pound Life on in the background while I make dinner? I’m not so sure.
So, what if you’re looking for a middle-ground? That is, you want to watch television on a proper set with a big screen, comfortably in your living room at a distance that won’t seer your retinas. And yet even basic TV, nevermind cable, is too expensive. (The lack of competition in America’s telecom industry explains cable’s high monthly fees: In France, cable’s only about $35 a month, the New York Times reports.)
You have choices beyond all or nothing.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported on a trend that Nielsen calls “cord shaving.” As opposed to cord cutting, which is going cold turkey off all cable, cord “shaving” involves keeping cable, but opting for cheaper, more basic packages. Many major networks have adapted, which means even more options for you. Many networks now offer à la carte packages, in which you can subscribe to on-demand original programming and watch it using devices like Apple TV. CBS, Nickelodeon, Showtime, and HBO all offer such services.
Nixing cable, whether you choose to go à la carte or lose it completely, I can understand. But at least hold onto your TV. Not your laptop. Your TV. Especially since there’s never been a better time to own a TV! Companies like Samsung and LG are rolling out high dynamic range televisions. These TVs do a better job at mimicking what we see with our naked eye, since HDR video has a wider range between the whitest whitest and the blackest blacks. If you want to see what HDR can do, scope out some of the photos taken on HDR cameras. And further into the future (five-ish years, maybe), we could be watching the Olympics in glorious 8K definition.
I’m aware that complaining about cable comes off as spoiled and banal. And it is! We’re talking about how we choose to spend disposable income on entertainment consumption. But when it comes to TV viewing habits, there’s a lot of money at stake: The US cable and telecom industry is worth $49 billion, and is the largest contributor to the US economy, with the energy sector coming in second at $44 billion, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. These are trends and consumer choices worth discussing.
And people do discuss it. Ad nauseam. We get it, you think cable’s a ripoff. But amid all the high-and-mighty proclamations of eschewing a decades-old television model that’s denounced as—and in many ways, is—a total cash suck, there’s still a lot I like about it. I probably won’t subscribe to cable forever. But for now, I just want to crack open a beer and watch Jurassic Park on TNT for the twentieth time.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
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