NOVEMBER 2005 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD

The Cable-Free Diary

Cable rates are going up, doubling in the past decade. At the same time, people are watching television less and less, down at least 10 percent in the last five years. It is getting easier to obtain video from sources other than television — DVD, CD, web sites, camcorders, instant message services, and now online music stores. Economic theory suggests people will start to cancel their cable subscriptions in order to save money.

At this point, it is a trend mainly among college students. If you have to choose between telephone and cable, it is not hard to choose to have a phone. But could this become a mainstream trend, with millions of suburbanites canceling cable just because television is no longer an essential part of daily life?

What happens when you try to live without cable? Can a middle-class American go without cable for a month, or even a week? I wanted to find out, so I unplugged the cable from my own television.

November 1: Going Cable-Free

It was all too easy to disconnect the cable. It’s just a cable, and it simply twisted off the back of the television. If I were actually canceling my cable service, it would not be much harder. I would call the cable company on the telephone, and they would send a technician to my street to climb up a utility pole and disconnect my cable there. Goodbye, MTV — goodbye, CNN.

Well, not so fast. MTV and CNN are both available on their respective web sites, including some free video on-line. It seems every television channel has a web site. Unfortunately, MTV’s video offerings are not available for my operating system. Bummer. Darn you, MTV!

Living in a house on the far side of a hill, I cannot pick up any respectable broadcast television signals. Years ago, during the lag between buying a television and getting cable installed, I watched broadcast television just to prove I could do it. The fuzzy picture and sound weren’t much fun, and that was on the two channels I could sort of tune in. Today, my attempt to plug my rabbit-ears antenna into my modern digital television fell short.

So if I want to watch my television, I can’t just flip through the channels. I have to actually pick what I want to watch. My first choice, still sitting on the VCR: a QVC program I taped last month. I watched 15 minutes, long enough to see Anthony Robbins explain how much easier it is to get where you’re going in life if you know where you are now.

As I watch, there is nothing to tell me whether I am watching a live program or a tape. For that matter, was the original broadcast live or taped? How can I tell? What difference does it really make?

November 3: Adjustments

After many years of taking television for granted, I’ve had to change the way I do things to adjust for its absence. So far, these are the situations where I’ve had to find an alternative to the cable habit.

These don’t seem like big changes. They seem simple and obvious, and it is hard to see how they make any difference in the bigger picture of my day.

I tried watching the new Paul McCartney video “Jenny Wren” on his web site, but it absolutely was not meant to be seen over a dialup connection. It played, but only in fits and starts, half a note at a time. I saw and heard enough, though, to understand why the song is called “son of ‘Blackbird.’” I imagine people who have high-speed Internet connections can see the whole song easily.

I’ve been busy with some exciting things this week, so I’m not sure I would have watched much television even if it were plugged in. Maybe I wasn’t watching as much television as I thought I was, at least on days like today.

The news I read does not seem any less real from the lack of any video to watch, but it does seem a bit more distant. News doesn’t seem so worrisome when I get it in text form. My opinion about some news stories has changed as a result. In particular, I am less impressed with the bird flu story. Newscasters worry about millions of deaths, but the actual number of human deaths so far is much less. Less than a million. In fact, less than a hundred. It seems the kernel of the story is real, but most of what is being said about it is hype. Something about TV news makes stories more troubling. It is harder to worry about the news in text form. I think the written medium makes it easier to separate the cold, hard facts from the opinion and speculation.

Perhaps it is a coincidence, but it seems I am falling asleep at night a few minutes faster and waking up with more energy.

November 4: Buying a Music Video

A big part of the appeal of television is the color and movement of the moving picture, and the best moving pictures are found in music videos. Music videos use well-chosed pictures, and they’re designed to be repeated many times, unlike most video programming. Videos are available by the thousand in DVD format, but I wondered if I could also buy a music video online.

In the iTunes Music Store, I looked for the new Shakira video, but it was not yet available. After a few minutes of searching, I decided on the U2 video “Beautiful Day.” In a minute, I paid for it, and it started to download.

I thought I would let it download overnight while I slept, but instead, I stayed up for an hour and watched my newly purchased music video at midnight — on my computer, of course. The video quality I saw was essentially the same as television. It cannot compare to the ideal television picture, but it was decidedly better than a cable picture on a bad day. More importantly, this was the whole video from beginning to end with nothing added — no logos, no excited fans superimposed talking over the second verse, no news scrolls or previews in the corner of the screen — all in all, a luxury compared to the experience of watching music videos on television.

The price, $1.99, is not much to pay. The bottom line: you can buy the moving-picture experience for a lot less money than the price of cable.

November 6: The Game

Tonight I’m actually missing something. The Philadelphia Eagles are playing football tonight, the game is on ESPN, and I can’t watch it. I am instead listening to the game on the radio and following some of the play-by-play on the NFL web site. It’s not the same as watching the game, but it’s also not the same as missing the game.

November 7: Tae Bo

When I had cable, watching television seemed a lot easier than watching a video. I have a hundred hours of VHS tapes and DVDs that I hardly ever watched. But watching a video is actually very easy. Popping in a tape and pressing play uses most of the same motions as turning on the television and selecting a channel. To put it another way, playing a DVD is just as easy as playing a CD.

Today’s tape: Tae Bo Instructional. I don’t remember half of these moves, but at least I’m actually using one of my exercise videos.

November 8: Election Night

On any other election night, I would be flipping between channels trying to get any shred of information or interpretation of the election results. Tonight I had to dig more. I got some good information from Yahoo and CNN, but they covered surprisingly few contests. I voted on at least 20 offices and questions myself, so the number of contests nationally must be huge, many more than the 12 or so reported in the mainstream media. I seemed to find news stories at the same pace as I would be seeing them on television, as if the same few stories are available everywhere, regardless of medium. It made me wonder if Wolf Blitzer spends election evening surfing the web to try to find something to report to the TV viewers.

While I was looking for political news today, I found dozens of reports about the Philadelphia Eagles’ troubles with their star wide receiver — apparently a story as big as the election. The TV people are impressively adept at analyzing and speculating about this kind of story, yet I think I got the story in less time by reading it on the ESPN web site.

November 14: Don’t Call It Monday Night Football

I don’t think I will be able to keep this diary going because I have already pretty much forgotten about my topic. I saw television on Sunday afternoon when I watched several minutes of an NFL football game at a friend’s house, but then I got to the real purpose of my visit and the game was forgotten. Tonight I am listening to the Philadelphia Eagles game on radio. I notice the radio broadcasters provide better play-by-play and a better sense of the event than the television coverage does. I’m too busy to watch the game anyway, as I am in the middle of updating a web site (and I don’t mean this page). I can follow the game by listening to the radio broadcast while typing away on my computer, a feat that is not so easy to achieve with television.

Of course, if I had average broadcast television reception, I would be able to watch tonight’s game along with most NFL broadcasts. If this is the one TV program I find myself thinking about, it hardly makes a case for cable.

In the news today AOL says it will be putting many old television series on its web site next year. After web sites like AOL get the compatibility issues sorted out with their video streaming, people who have high-speed Internet connections will be watching a wide range of television programming on the Web.

November 27: Conclusions and Recommendations

I originally intended to keep my cable unplugged for an entire month to record the logistics of my cable-free life, but the transition wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I expected. It was just too easy. So I plan to plug my cable back in today so I can record a few days of returning to cable before the month ends. Before I do that, I want to try to answer the questions I set out with at the beginning of the month and make some recommendations based on the way I see television’s near future.

Giving up cable is easy. Television is not a hard habit to break. Because of my location here in Valley Forge, which seemingly does not receive broadcast television at all anymore, I gave up television completely during the time I was home this month. I saw only an hour of television during the entire month, yet this had a negligible effect on the shape of my daily life. Television looks like a big deal but really has very little relevance to modern middle-class American life.

Look at it this way. If you visit someone’s home, you’ll surely notice whether they have a television screen or not. But you may not see whether the television set actually receives television signals. If you see people sitting in front of a screen watching a movie, are they watching a cable channel, a VHS tape, a DVD video, or a digital download? How can you tell? Does it make any difference?

Cable is not a cost-effective way to obtain video programming. Lots of video is available free on the Internet, and this is increasing rapidly. It helps if you have a high-speed Internet connection, but this costs much less than a television cable subscription. If you want to buy video programming, you can amass a huge collection for the same price that you pay for cable.

Yesterday friends showed me a one-dollar DVD video they got at a department store. It was not on sale, just an item that was made to be cheap. The imagined advantage of watching television is that it is free, yet the cost of cable is not necessarily different from the cost of going to the movies or buying the DVD videos of your choice. Even the cost of cable installation, before you pay for any actual cable service, is now higher than the cost of purchasing a good DVD player. If you had to choose, which would you choose?

So why have cable at all? In my opinion, the main reason to have cable is to watch broadcasts of live events, primarily professional sports and awards shows. These are the only areas I can think of where cable earns its money. Of course, if you have good broadcast television reception, you might get enough of this programming over the air. Nothing bad happens to you if you miss the broadcast of a live event, so it’s really just a question of how much luxury you want to have in this area of your life.

The other qualities that I thought were important about cable — news, culture, humor, weather, and so on — are more readily available on the Internet. It took me only a few minutes to find the things I was looking for in these areas on the Internet, which is something you can’t say about television.

If cable fees continue to go up, the cable industry is likely to lose millions of viewers. People who lose their jobs, military reservists called into active duty, and people who take any other kind of sudden financial hit are the most likely to cancel their cable subscriptions. A few people will cancel cable as a response to rate increases. More importantly, though, people may never get around to signing up for cable when they move. It has always been the case that it can take new college graduates several years to get to the point of subscribing to cable. Many of next year’s graduates may never get their own cable subscriptions.

And this makes sense. If you’re young, busy, and under financial pressure, television should not be a top priority. A high-speed Internet connection should always come before cable because it costs about half as much and provides much more content. And once you have the high-speed Internet connection, it is hard to understand what you need cable for.

Cable companies can slow the inevitable erosion of their customer base by freezing rates and providing hassle-free service. It won’t occur to most people to cancel cable until a difficult problem comes up, yet cable companies have a reputation for creating problems for their customers. It happened to me last year when a cable technician doing routine maintenance cut off most of my cable channels. If this kind of incident never occurs, customers may never ask themselves, “Why do we need cable anyway?”

Cable providers can also lock in customers by bundling cable service with high-speed Internet and telephone service, although they will have to do much better at providing these services to have any hope of signing up most of their customers for these combinations.

Cable channels must cut costs somehow. The cost of video production equipment is falling rapidly and video production skills are now widespread, so the cost of creating video programming should be falling. A cable channel should not assume, as they have at times in the past, that they can increase their costs and pass the increase on to the viewers in one way or another.

At the same time, cable channels should be looking for ways to bypass the cable carriers and connect directly to viewers over the Internet. For that matter, video producers can now start thinking of taking their programming directly to the public rather than signing up with a cable channel.

And for viewers? As I mentioned, high-speed Internet should be a higher priority than cable. If you live a busy life and have trouble paying for everything, then cable can be one of the first things you cut. In the Internet age, cable is one of those luxuries you have no business pretending you can afford until you are in a financially sound position. Put it in the same category as a brand new car, pool cleaning service, dry cleaning, and magazine subscriptions — costly extras that might be nice to have after you are sure you have the money to pay for them. You’ll feel better about paying off a thousand dollars of credit card debt than you will about a year of television. As big as television seems sometimes, giving up cable is easy. You’ll forget you ever had it as easily as you’ve already forgotten last year’s TV shows. And there will still be plenty to watch when you feel like sitting down and watching the television.

If you have the money for cable, it still pays to examine your cable habit. Is it just a habit, or does it actually work for you?

The cable system is under financial pressure. It is already slowly losing viewers and viewing hours, and I believe the decline will accelerate in 2006 as more video content becomes available online. I am planning to keep my cable, at least for now, but I am not nearly as certain about it as I was a month ago. If the live events I watch on television turn up on the Internet, I won’t hesitate to make that phone call to cancel my cable subscription.

November 29: Tethered Again

I watched more television than I really wanted to yesterday so I could write here about the experience of going back to it. The one show I really wanted to watch was the Grey Cup, the championship game of the Canadian Football League (CFL). It was played on Sunday but broadcast in edited form late at night, in the 1:30 time slot, so I had to tape it and watch it on tape.

But I was lucky to see it at all. It speaks poorly of television as a communications network that this game, arguably the biggest football game of the month, was broadcast on only a scattering of local cable channels covering, I would guess, a tenth of the cable households in the U.S. I had to bounce around the Internet for ten minutes to find out where the broadcast could be seen in my area, and the thought occurred to me that it would be simpler if I could watch the broadcast right there on the Internet instead of having to go off to program the VCR.

But at least I could see the game, which turned out to be a thriller. The CFL must surely be asking if they can set up an Internet-based pay-per-view system before next year’s Grey Cup so they can reach a larger part of their U.S. audience and, of course, make more money.

Cable will be fighting a losing battle against the Internet because once people like me get used to the idea of controlling what’s on our screens, we’ll have the slightest bit of reluctance to turn that control back over to the cable companies and television channels.

When I went back to the television it initially startled me with how hectic it was, all pumped up with logos, animated text, banners, and so on. All that visual activity, of course, is not for my benefit, but it’s necessary if TV channels hope to have their viewers sit through their commercial breaks. Without the commercials, you can take away most of the work and expense of making a television broadcast, because then it doesn’t have to be hyped up at all. So are we going to see a flood of video podcasts replacing television shows as required viewing? In the meantime, how can anyone say they relax by watching television? It is entertaining but is designed to increase, not decrease, your heart rate, to aggravate rather than comfort.

The one new show I was curious to see was the Colbert Report. It lived up to its notices, but basically spread three web pages’ worth of political humor over half an hour. I also wanted the Weather Channel to report on the latest tropical storms, which of course it did. When I went to bed at night it took an extra hour to fall asleep, the same kind of thing I had experienced back in October before I unplugged my TV cable. Today I watched only a few minutes of television.

November 30: Final Thought

I think the main thing my experience indicates is that you don’t have to wonder whether you can give up cable or not. Just unplug the cable from the television for about a week. By then, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to live without cable.


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