Your shows, your way
Jul 30, 2012 (Portland Press Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
For Dana Baldwin, the idea is a simple one: She doesn't want to pay for hundreds, maybe thousands, of television shows she'll never watch.
It's not a new idea. For decades, people have bemoaned the fact that by paying for cable or satellite TV packages, they are paying for lots of channels they never use.
And paying a lot.
Baldwin and her family are among an increasing number of consumers who have found they can "cut the cord" to their cable or satellite service by cobbling together cheaper -- even free -- means of watching TV programming, including network websites, video streaming services like Hulu or Netflix, and over-the-air programming from local network affiliates.
Before making the switch, Baldwin's family paid about $67 a month for cable, excluding fees. Now they pay $9.99 a month for Netflix, and get the rest of their favorite TV shows for free online or over the air.
"We still watch TV. We don't spend any less time in front of screens," said Baldwin, 47, director of learning and interpretation at the Portland Museum of Art. "But we're only watching what we want, when we want -- and paying a lot less."
Although the number of TV viewing households like Baldwin's are relatively small -- an estimated 87 percent of all U.S. households still use a cable or satellite TV service -- it has been growing. Last year, Convergence Consulting Group, based in Canada, released research on American households that showed that between 2008 and 2011, about 2.65 million Americans left their cable companies in favor of an Internet subscription service.
At the same time, the Nielsen media research company estimated the number of households in America with a traditional TV set declined from 98.9 percent to 96.7 percent, adding to the argument that more people are watching programming on their computers or via other sources.
The fact that most TV watchers depend on a cable or satellite provider was spotlighted earlier this month both nationally and in Maine by a rash of channel blackouts. In each case, the blackouts resulted from high-profile financial disputes between cable or satellite services and the companies that provide them with programming.
Time Warner Cable subscribers were without Portland's lone ABC affiliate, WMTW (Channel 8), for about 10 days after negotiations broke down over how much Time Warner should pay WMTW's owner, Hearst Television, for the right to use its programming.
DirecTV subscribers nationally also went more than a week in July without several Viacom cable networks, including MTV and Comedy Central, due to a similar dispute. And for most of July, Dish Network customers have been without the cable channel AMC, home of the popular shows "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," because Dish says it will not meet AMC's demand for a price increase.
The spate of channel blackouts caused Congress to hold a hearing this past Tuesday on whether or not to make changes to the 1992 Cable Act, which was designed to regulate the industry and foster competition. What Congress' next step might be is unclear.
Program providers blame cable and satellite companies for the growing number of disputes and program blackouts; in turn, the cable and satellite companies blame the program providers.
During the past two years, there have been more than 40 such disputes leading to channel blackouts. Before the WMTW blackout, the last blackout of a channel on a cable system in southern Maine caused by a contract dispute was in 1993.
Neither Time Warner nor Hearst will say what price they finally agreed upon. But Time Warner had said Hearst initially wanted a 300 percent increase for its stations' programs. Media analysts estimate that cable and satellite companies often pay major cable networks like ESPN around $4.75 per subscriber, while often paying station groups like Hearst something less than 75 cents per subscriber.
Time Warner has 360,000 subscribers in Maine, and is the only cable TV operator in most towns it serves.
CHEAPER CABLE OFFER
The growing number of disputes, analysts say, are caused by a combination of declining TV ad revenues, increased programming costs and increased competition for viewers among cable, satellite, websites, streaming services and phone-based services.
And while the disputes continue, customer keep seeing prices go up without any real ability to choose what they want to pay for.
In February, Time Warner did begin offering a smaller, cheaper package of services to Maine subscribers. It's called TV Essentials, and for $49.99 plus a converter box ($8.45 a month), customers get all the local channels in their area plus about 35 of the most popular cable channels.
But customers don't choose the channels, and they don't get major sports channels like ESPN.
Time Warner's next level of service, called Standard, is about $73.99 a month.
"Today, cable television is just too expensive for many customers," said Jeff Kagan, a media analyst based in Atlanta. "New technology is also changing viewing habits. Customers can watch what they want, when they want, instead of gathering around the television at the appointed hour.
"The television industry is reinventing itself. There are old and new forces battling, and they will continue to battle over the next several years."
Joining the "battle" are the many TV viewers who are finding ways to watch TV without cable or satellite.
There are numerous websites and online forums devoted to helping people find online shows or set up "smart TV" boxes that allow them to stream Internet programming onto their TVs.
And it's not just younger folks -- who have grown up using more screens than just a TV -- who are exploring these alternative viewing choices.
Kerry Corthell, 60, of Scarborough said the recent blackout of Viacom networks on DirecTV has prompted her to begin seriously contemplating dropping her satellite TV service and switching to more Internet-based TV viewing.
Corthell said the Viacom blackout was just about the final straw, because she usually watched recorded versions of her favorite Comedy Central shows, "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," at breakfast.
"My friends have told me to start by making a list of my most critical shows and then see where they're available," said Corthell. "I already use my DVR a lot, so watching the shows at different times, or even from last season, won't bother me."
Corthell estimates she pays about $60 a month for satellite TV. So even if she subscribes to Hulu and Netflix for streaming -- both cost about $9.99 a month -- it will be significantly less.
Tim Lambert, who works in information technology in southern Maine, has made a methodical study of how to go without cable or satellite. Lambert, 34, of Biddeford decided to "cut the cord" about six years ago after a rate increase from his satellite service.
He discovered that a Windows 7 personal computer would give him DVR capability. He bought a good quality outdoor TV antenna ($75 to $150) to make sure he could get all of southern Maine's over-the-air TV channels, including affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and PBS. And he bought a network tuner -- the SiliconDust HD Homerun tuner, for about $130 -- to find and stream network shows from the Internet.
(Some people also use "smart TV" boxes, notably one made by Roku, so they can stream programming from the Internet to the TV and still use their computer for other tasks.)
Today, Lambert watches shows from TV networks' websites, from online subscription services like Netflix, or over the air. He also subscribes to a DVR service, which allows him to get some of his favorite shows, like "The Office" on NBC.
WHAT ARE COMMERCIALS
Josh Lovejoy of South Portland also cut the cord a few years ago and has found advantages in streaming programming for his children, all under age 5. He's found that Netflix and other sources have a lot of quality children's shows, without commercials.
"My kids pretty much don't know what commercials are," said Lovejoy, 36.
If a generation grows up not knowing about commercials, that will certainly have an impact on the TV industry.
It's hard to predict the future of cable and satellite TV, but it is a sure bet that lots of young people are comfortable with the idea of finding TV programming online and watching when they want to watch. So as they grow older and become homeowners, they might not be as likely to pay for cable or satellite service.
"I have specific shows I like to watch, and I can watch them online, mostly," said Meghan Garrard, 21, of Gorham, a senior psychology major at Saint Joseph's College in Standish.
Garrard said she can find most of the shows she likes online pretty easily. She enjoys both "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" on ABC.com, though she laments the amount of commercials.
She also enjoys "Workaholics" on Comedy Central, but sometimes has a hard time finding current episodes.
Still, not having a monthly TV bill is worth it, she says.
"I think for me, having cable would be a waste of money," she said. "Once I get my own place, I would definitely not get cable."
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:
___ (c)2012 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Visit the Portland
Press Herald (Portland, Maine) at www.pressherald.com Distributed by MCT
[ Satellite Spotlight's Homepage ]