CUTTING THE CORD: DAUNTING OR DOABLE?

About a month ago I was sitting on my sofa looking at the Direct TV channel guide. I had watched everything saved on my DVR so I took to the guide to see what I could watch. I was sitting on my sofa staring at the guide in amazement. I found myself with over a hundred channel options with no interest in watching any of them. Then, I thought about how much I was spending on Direct TV every month. The cost, coupled with the fact that I live in the Midwest where even during a light rainstorm, Direct TV service is tenuous, at best, made me start thinking about how I consume entertainment. I knew switching to another cable service would just be more of the same. They’d offer me a good deal and three to six months later my bill would skyrocket, leaving me with the task of calling them, dealing with customer service, trying to lower my bill and most likely ending the call with an even more costly plan. I also wanted to be able to watch content whether I was on my sofa, riding the train to work or in a hotel room.

Since I work in entertainment, I was well aware of all the new services in the market aimed, mostly at millennials, to make entertainment consumption more appealing and convenient. I’m a long way from being a millennial but when it comes to tv viewing options, I want what they’re having.

Figuring out what options are out there and which ones fit one’s needs is a lot to unpack. One common question is: “Won’t I spend just as much cobbling together different streaming services as I do for cable?” The answer is: “maybe.”

But, if you’re patient and willing to do some homework, there are savings to be found. But first, there’s A LOT of unpacking to do.

If you’re a person who doesn’t care about technology, streaming and downloads, the answer is super simple. You can go to Best Buy, Target or most drug stores and buy a digital antenna that you connect to your tv and you’ll get access to all your local tv network affiliate and independent tv stations. You’ll also find a host of genre driven digital networks such as Me-TV, MOVIES! Antenna TV, Grit, Buzzr and a lot more. It can be that simple.

But, if you’re a more voracious consumer of entertainment content there are some options to get you want you want without subscribing to cable/satellite and without breaking the bank.

Let’s look at a couple of broadcast network options. If you go to the NBC website you can access a lot of the most recent episodes and full seasons of current shows. If you use the app, you’ll be asked to authenticate through a cable or satellite provider and have access to live tv (based on your tv market), current and library programming. Over at CBS All Access, you can watch recent episodes of show like “Zoo” and “Big Brother” without subscribing to their service. But to watch other shows like “Mom” or “I Love Lucy” you have options. For “Mom” if you have a paid subscription you can watch up to up to 7 episodes. Without a subscription you can access 5 episodes, which is a pretty solid option if you’re looking to save money. CBS has also started to develop original programming for their All Access platform which is akin to Netflix & Hulu. So in order to watch “The Good Wife” spinoff “The Good Fight” or the new “Star Trek” series “Star Trek: Discover” you’ll need a subscription, A subscription is also needed to use their Live TV service. A subscription with commercials can be as low as $5.99/month with a no commercial option at $9.99/month.

These are just two examples of trying to figure out how to get streaming access to network programming for which viewers might have a sense of urgency. You might not want to be the only person at work not to know which doctors sexed it up on last night’s “Grey’s Anatomy” or what event made the latest installment of “This is Us” a tearjerker.

Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are the streaming brands with which most consumers are familiar. There are more, most being more demographically targeted like a lot of basic cable networks. Let’s take a quick look at what the three most popular brands offer:

Amazon – With a Prime Video subscription at $8.99/month consumers are able to access a library of classic and contemporary tv shows and movies. Not all shows are free with the subscription and can be purchased per episode or by season. Amazon originals are more critical darlings with limited mainstream appeal. “Transparent” is their most notable series earning multiple Emmys while thoughtfully portraying the struggles of an older transgender woman and the emotional and sexual complexities of her family.

Netflix – a brand that started years ago as a DVD rental service has emerged as the most used streaming platform. Netflix boasts a wide library of movies. With notable titles like “Rogue One” the acquisitions team has become a competitive force in showcasing newer films not long after their theatrical runs. And of course there are the Netflix original series like “House of Cards”, “Orange is the New Black” and “Grace and Frankie”. Not only are these shows critically acclaimed and award winning, they have also become part of the pop culture conversation.

Hulu – a platform originally known for being an on-demand service with customers able to watch episodes of ABC, FOX and NBC series the day after they aired on their respective networks and have access to their massive catalogues of library programming slowly dipped its toes into the original series waters when it picked up “The Mindy Project” after the show was cancelled on FOX. But, the show was mostly forgotten and Hulu didn’t become a real player in the original series game until this year when “The Handmaid’s Tale” debuted to critical acclaim, garnered 11 Emmy nominations and had water cooler buzz.

With Netflix and Amazon being “streaming only” platforms, I’m now going to break off and talk a little bit more about Hulu. Within the past few months Hulu debuted an enhanced service allowing subscribers to watch live tv including local network affiliates. Live streaming of cable networks include TNT, FX, MSNBC and ESPN. One caveat is that not all local channels are available in all markets. That’s something to keep in mind and ask about before signing up.

Going back to that day a month ago when I was staring into the abyss of the Direct TV channel guide and wondering why I was spending so much money on so many channels that I never use, it was in that moment that I went on line and researched Hulu Live as an alternative to Direct TV. Since I live in a major tv market I found that I would have access to all four major network affiliates, but not any of the independent stations in the market. For me, that was fine since don’t watch a ton of syndicated programming.

Before subscribing I called the Hulu customer service line to ask a few questions about the premium network ad-ons (HBO & Showtime). This was on a Sunday afternoon and not only was someone available to talk to me live, the customer service was friendly and HELPFUL. I fully understood my options:

1) $39.99/month – Hulu with Live TV (with commercials) + 50 channels; 20 Hour Cloud DVR

2) $43.99/month – Hulu with Live TV (no commercials)

Optional Add-one:

$. 7.99/month – limited commercials
$11.99/month – no commercials
$14.99/month – enhanced cloud DVR (200 hours)
$14.99/month – unlimited screens (everyone in home can stream at same time)
$14.99/month – HBO
$. 8.99/month – SHOWTIME
$. 9.99/month – CINEMAX

Since I was approaching this as an experiment, not knowing if I’d love or hate the service, I went with the first plan for $39.99/month with HBO & Showtime as add-ones for a total of $63.97/month. This is about $100 less than what I was paying for Direct TV which included their equipment charges (rip off!) And remember, I already own the tv’s and streaming devices so no additional monthly equipment charges. Yay me!

Let’s talk about equipment, since you’ve got to have a way to actually watch the content. There are a lot of options. If you have a smart tv, the Hulu app is most likely already available. As are Amazon Prime and some other apps. You can also access the Hulu app on these devices: Mac/PC browser, Android TV, Apple TV, Xbox One, iOS and Android mobile devices, Amazon Fire TV, Roku and Chromecast. The price points on the devices vary but they are easily available to purchase on line or at any brick and mortar electronics store.

I own 2 Apple TV boxes so that’s how I use Hulu Live when I’m at home. But I’ve also used the service outside of the home on my iPad and iPhone. What I like about the Apple is that iOS has a TV app that appears on all your devices and know which tv apps you used brings all of that programming (including your iTunes Movie and TV libraries) into one place while using algorithms to make other programming suggestions. If you’re a Netflix subscriber you’re familiar with this feature.

So what about the user experience? On a scale of 1-10 I give Hulu Live a 7. The interface is pretty user friendly, although sometimes you have to go deep into various screens to discover all of the programming that’s available. Another nice feature of Apple TV is that you can use Siri voice commands to look for a specific show which helps cut down on the physical searching. I believe some other devices have this feature as well, but I’ve only used Apple. You will still need to do some physical searches because Hulu has amassed quite a library from its partners. And they’ve compiled programming in a lot of specialized categories such as “Edgy Comedies” and “Required Viewing.” For sports fans, you can tell HULU your favorite teams and it will automatically record their games. Like the Apple TV app and Netflix, HULU uses algorithms to suggest programs you might like. It also keeps track of which networks you watch the most and arranges them in order so you see your most watched networks first. If you stop watching a show in Hulu it marks it so the next time you’re in Hulu you have the option to “Keep Watching”. Hulu also has an amazing “On Demand” library. There’s a lot to discover.

The live tv video looks great, but there are some hiccups. When you’re watching live tv, let’s say “Rachel Maddow” on MSNBC and at the end of the hour when the next show is supposed to start, the video breaks for a few seconds. It jumps back to the end of “Rachel Maddow” then smoothly starting next show. So the good news is you don’t really miss the end of the show, but it’s an unnecessary disruption that I hope Hulu is working on fixing. I’ve also found live video to freeze. I believe I can blame my internet connection on a couple of those instances as I was not able to use any streaming app at the time. Side note: it’s important to have high speed internet if you’re going to be streaming and using your wifi connection for other household uses (alarms, thermostats, etc.). But, there have been other video freezes that have on the Hulu side. My screen would just show a circle indicating it was trying to reset itself. This has not happened often, but enough times to be noticeable.

As for the 20 hours of Cloud DVR. This feature is a bit confusing. You can tell Hulu to add a show, movie or special to “MY STUFF” and it should show up in the cloud DVR. Most times it does, but sometimes that’s not the case. I did an online chat session with Hulu to discuss this problem and it’s a problem of which they’re aware and working on. There is a work around where your can select upcoming episodes to the series you have selected in “MY STUFF” and they will record. IT seems to have gotten better, but this is a feature I’ll be circling back to make sure it gets fixed. I can’t imagine upgrading to the 200 hour DVR and realizing my stories haven’t recorded. I’ve been able to manage with 20 hours. The cloud DVR deletes older programs to make room for newer recordings. My opinion might change in the fall once it’s time to check out all the new network offerings. Again, outstanding customer service.

Since I have Apple TV boxes in my living room and bedroom in addition to an iPad & iPhone, it’s easy to continue watching something that I started on one device and continue on another. This is a feature in Hulu, the TV (Apple) app, HBO & Showtime apps. You’re also able to pause live tv and rewind.

The big question is how many more network partnerships will Hulu and others be able to make since every network and studio seems to be developing their own streaming platforms. Disney recently announced that they’ll be pulling their content off of Netflix in 2019 so they can launch their own streaming platform. Disney has ownership in Hulu but if they’re launching their own platform what does that mean for their future relationship with Hulu?

Hulu Live isn’t the only way to get around having cable or satellite tv. Direct TV Now allows you to stream programming on various devices and has a low cost entry point and none of their equipment costs. Although, just like with its satellite service there are different tiers and depending on which networks are important to you, you could be at $70 before any premium cable network add-ons. There’s also SLING TV which offers live tv and again has several tiers and allows you to add some premium cable nets to your package. You can start out with SLING TV for as low as $20/month. It’s an a la carte service that allows you to customize your channel lineup. You can add-on HBO & Showtime to this service as well. It’s also available on all of the devices as Hulu Live. And Comcast might have a stand-alone streaming offering in the future.

Another thing I discovered is that if you want to watch programming on a basic cable network app that requires cable authentication in some instances Hulu and SLING TV are listed as providers. So, there’s an added value there.

And if you’re don’t care about broadcast networks or basic cable channels and just trying to watch “Game of Thrones”, “Insecure”, “Ray Donovan” or other original dramas on premium networks most of them have their own apps with varying monthly fees. But before you just buy a stand alone premium service, think about your needs because you could find yourself spending more on individual services than if you bundled.

Another nice feature for all of these options is that there are no contracts so you can subscribe/cancel at your convenience. You can also manage this all online and not deal with those pesky customer service folks. For example, if you only watch HBO for “Game of Thrones” you can go into your Hulu account and remove the service and you’ll be able to add the service back whenever it suits you.

Like I said, there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to cord cutting and making sure it’s cost effective. This is just the beginning and there’s more to experience and learn. But if it’s something you think is right for you, it’s definitely doable. It just takes some research and keeping up with me here at Ed Johnson Television.

To get started check out these options and do some comparison shopping:

Hulu.com
Sling.com
tv.youtube.com
PlayStation.com
directtvnow.com

Are you considering cutting the cord? Leave a comment.