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updated: 12/2/2017 8:16 AM

Essay: I can live without cable, but not as well as my kids

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  • For cord cutters, the Sling TV app offers two separate "skinny bundles" that can be streamed over a television or mobile device.

    For cord cutters, the Sling TV app offers two separate "skinny bundles" that can be streamed over a television or mobile device.
    (AP Photo/Sling TV)

 
 

I finally cut the cord.

I did it a few weeks ago, after realizing that I was watching a lot more television via my Amazon Fire device than my cable box. Partly, I wanted to save a little money. But I also wanted to see how easy -- or hard -- it would be to cobble together a series of streaming services that would allow me to do without cable. I also wanted to see if I would emerge from the experience with a better idea of what the future of television might be like.

My last monthly Optimum bill shows that the television portion came to $136, divvied up thusly: $89 for a package of stations that also included HBO, Showtime and Starz; $8.95 for extra sports channels; a sports surcharge of $6.97 (presumably to cover ESPN's exorbitant costs); $20 for two cable boxes; broadcast retransmission fees of $3.99; a premium service fee (whatever that is) of $1.50; and $4.95 for Disney on Demand. I have no idea how the latter become part of my cable bill, since no one in my family, including my 7-year-old son, watches any Disney channels.

I also subscribed to Netflix ($9.99 a month). More recently, I added Hulu when it became clear that "The Handmaid's Tale" was a must-watch ($11.99). And I pay $99 a year for Amazon Prime -- an amount I would have paid even if Amazon wasn't offering a content streaming service, given the shipping benefits that come with being a prime customer.

After canceling my cable subscription, I consulted with my three grown children, none of whom have cable, to see how they watched TV. They were pretty aligned: They used Netflix, HBO, Amazon and Hulu. My daughter Kate and her husband also subscribed to Showtime. When I asked them how they watched TV, they said that Netflix was their default channel -- not only the first channel they went to, but also the channel they were most likely to browse when they weren't sure what they were looking for.

They took Amazon for two reasons: Though its original content wasn't terribly inspired, it didn't cost them anything extra, and it made it easy to rent movies, something they can't do with their other streaming services. And who can live without HBO? It always seems to have a handful of shows, like "Game of Thrones," that you simply have to see.

When you cut the cord, you are acknowledging that streaming services are going to be at the center of your TV watching. So I followed my children's example and made Netflix, Amazon and Hulu my core channels, with Netflix first among equals. I also added HBO NOW, its stand-alone, no-cable-needed app. I thought about Showtime, but then decided I'll wait for the next season of "Billions," which is the only thing I've watched on it since "Homeland" jumped the shark a few seasons ago.

Taken together, the four services cost $37.99 a month. If I had no other TV needs, I would be saving almost $100 a month. Alas, there were other things I needed to watch, two in particular.

The first was sports. If you are a sports fan, cutting the cord becomes a more complicated, more expensive process. You need a raft of channels to follow sports: CBS for football and college basketball, Fox for football and baseball, NBC for the Olympics, TNT and TBS for professional basketball, and of course, ESPN and ESPN2. Most of these channels are not available via streaming only. You are required to buy a bundle of some sort.

The best option, so far as I could tell, was to get the Sling TV app, which offers two separate "skinny bundles" that can be streamed over a television or mobile device. On the one hand, it felt unsatisfying having to buy a bundle, which included lots of channels I didn't care about -- and at $44.98 a month, it wasn't cheap. On the other hand, it gave me almost every sports station I needed, plus some news channels that would otherwise require a cable subscription.

The one channel it didn't have was CBS, which has so far refused to join the Sling bundle. But CBS is the only major network to offer an online-only option, which cost $5.99 a month. I signed on. Now my monthly costs were $126.93. Cord cutting was saving me less than $10 a month. Sigh.

I still had one problem to solve. I love "The Americans" and "Fargo," two shows distributed by FX. But FX remains wedded to the bundle. When I had a cable subscription I could use the FX streaming app to watch episodes a day or two after they had aired. That's not possible now. So I either have to watch it on Sling TV on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. -- and who does that anymore? -- or else find some clever way to get it on demand.

I turned to my kids again. What did they do? Sometimes, they said, they paid to watch the episode on iTunes. But more often, they just waited, sometimes as long as a year, for the show to become available on Netflix or Amazon or Hulu. After all, it's not like there wasn't plenty of other content to keep them occupied in the meantime.

A large part of the reason my TV costs remained high after cutting the cord is that I was trying to replace all the channels that mattered to me when I subscribed to a cable bundle. But I think that's because I've been watching television for some 60 years, and having a wide variety of channels is what I'm accustomed to.

My children don't have that baggage. They don't mind leaving behind stations that are part of the bundle. Indeed, because there is so much high-quality television available on streaming services, they don't have any interest in the standard fare of the major networks. Cord cutting is not a sacrifice for them.

In the last five years, according to data compiled by Nielsen, people between the ages of 12 and 25 have reduced the amount of traditional television they watch by 40 percent. Older millennials, ages 25 to 34, have seen a 25 percent drop in their TV viewing. They're all using Netflix and other streaming services instead. Heck, even my 7-year-old defaults to Netflix when he turns the TV on.

In the end I can't help thinking that stations like FX, which are trying to preserve the old cable business model, are making a mistake. Most people in my age group still have cable television. But the generations after me are simply not going to be interested in shows that aren't streamed.

It turns out that you can watch an awful lot of good television for $37.99, more than enough to make up for anything you might miss on a cable bundle. Someday, it will even be easy to get sports programming. I just hope I'm still around to partake.

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Nocera is a Bloomberg View columnist. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and The New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is the co-author of "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA."

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