MCN Commentary & Analysis

Cord Cutter Diary: The First Cut

I was planning to cut the cord a year ago. My DirecTV bill was around $180 a month and they announced that they were going to raise the price another $10 a month. DirecTV Now (as it was then known) was around $50 a month. HBO was free with my AT&T unlimited phone plan. Showtime and Encore and Cinemax would add another $30 to my streaming plan. So what was I thinking, hanging on to DirecTV?

I was a happy DirecTV customer for about 20 years. I switched to DirecTV from cable when they added local channels. In Los Angeles, we were in that first wave. And I wanted Sunday Ticket, the NFL access program that meant I could watch my favorite team at home every week instead of going to sports bars at 10am on Sundays. In 1994, it was $139 a season. (Currently, Sunday Ticket is $289 and $389 if you want Red Zone or streaming.) I first signed up in 1997.

I installed those early DirecTV antennas with one wire coming down to my apartment myself (badly). As the service expanded with more valuable complications, the antennas changed and DirecTV installed them. I think I have had four or five over the years.

In the early days, the DVR was actually a TIVO. Then it was branded in-house. Then the box became a product that we leased, instead of owned. The boxes were the size of a small DVD player, one for each TV. I had external hard drives in my living room and bedroom to expand the amount of space on those DVRs (which would only ever work with the specific DVR it was set up with, so when those DVRs went bad, all the content was lost).

The internet brought home sharing, with the DVRs on a network. And soon, a central DVR with two terabytes of space that serviced all the TVs with only a small box (8′ by 5″) connected to each TV.

And of course, my relationship with DirecTV lived through the transition from square TVs to HD wide screen… then 1080… then 4K… and broad VOD. But one thing about DirecTV… they always demanded to be paid for all kinds of little things. My “Premier” package is $170. Add on $9 a month for a protection plan for the equipment I lease. $10 a month for the centralized DVR, plus $3 a month to use it and $7 each for added TVs. For my family, that’s $44 a month, or more than 25% added to the fee for Premier. At least they stopped charging for HD and local channels, which they did for years.

Last year, I was going to cut the cord and was offered a deal that took it down to under $100 a month. And I stayed. There are limitations, but basically, I have been happy with the service and have used it for a couple decades, through thick and thin.

Last week, I found out that $40 of that discount had expired. On top of that, I updated my AT&T wireless account for more data service freedom—I was one of the early “unlimited” wireless service customers who eventually found out that the service was not actually unlimited. Still irritates—and found out that the new wireless deals didn’t include HBO, for which I had been getting a monthly credit on my DirecTV bill. So that was another $13 hike coming up.

I called again. Again I was sent to a special operator. The bill this month was $173. They would cut it to $140. I said, “Turn it off.”

That’s a scary moment. The end of a relationship. I wouldn’t call it an abusive one, either. It was too expensive, but I got a lot out of it. Access and convenience.

For many years, I would do the math in my head and figure, “Okay… that’s $30 too much a month, but it’s only $360 a year and we waste so much money on nothing and we really use this and it works well for us, so… okay.” But two things changed in the last year or two for me.

We finally got fiber optic internet at the house and this means that I don’t have to worry about the quality of the streaming experience. There will be a day when something goes wrong and I will be irritated, but basically, our home internet access is close to perfect. Also, over these years, we had most of the nooks and crannies of the place – a 1908 building with a lot of cement that blocks signal – either hard-wired or connected via wi-fi extenders. This was a function of streaming services and videogaming that have been more and more hungry for consistent connections.

Here is a list of what is hooked up in our home:
3 hard-wired televisions
3 hard-wired Apple TVs (more on how we made that choice later)
1 hard-wired PS4
2 hard-wired DVD players
1 hard-wired tv sound box
2 hard-wired wi-fi extenders
1 hard-wired work computer

1 wifi-connected television
1 wifi-connected AppleTV
1 wifi-connected PS4
5 wifi-connected Alexa products
6 wifi-connected lamps
2 wi-fi connected iPads
3 wi-fi connected smart phones
1 wifi-connected Ring doorbell

Guest wi-fi
And all the streaming on the TVs and sometimes, the portables.

That’s a lot to rely on when your wi-fi goes out every time it rains hard… even in Southern California, where it only rains occasionally.

Second, the small package streaming offerings became legitimate. Years ago, you may have read me raging against start-up companies that sought to sell streaming access to local stations by manipulating the rights of broadcasters. I consider that stealing – no matter how much broadcasters have taken advantage over the decades – and never wanted a part of that.

In the year since I originally considered cutting the cord, the small package streaming world has gotten less attractive, not more. The tech has improved in some cases. But the pricing has gotten worse, unless you are looking for the most limited packages. Playstation Vue, which my 2018 research would have made my #1 choice, has closed shop. DirecTV Now has devolved into AT&T TV Now. Prices have gone up, coming closer to echoing the cable packages. Obviously, if you want less content, you can pay less. But my family wants all the movie channels.

And so, we have cut the cord. The savings, as it all works out, are about $20 a month. Saving $240 a year isn’t bad… but against the expenditure of $1300+ a year for service, it already feels like we are back to, “maybe the same old thing is worth a little more money.”

This first few days have been interesting… but that conversation is for the next entry.

6 Responses to “Cord Cutter Diary: The First Cut”

  1. YancySkancy says:

    We cut the cord several years ago now, and there’s simply no perfect combination of alternatives (if you’re looking to save money). New services come along, and if you want them you have to decide whether you want a yearly subscription that saves you a few dollars or a monthly, which saves you from being locked into something you might not like for a whole year. Then there are the commercial or no-commercial options. And do you add other services separately or on to existing services? If you don’t have one of the live TV services like Sling, do you forgo your fave current shows, wait for them to show up on your other services (sometimes next day, as with Hulu), buy or rent them on iTunes or whatever, watch them on apps via a sympathetic friend’s cable subscription log-in info? Currently, I have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Starz, CBS All Access and Criterion Channel. We just added Sundance Now this week, mainly because my girlfriend wanted to see A Discovery of Witches. I’ve put HBO on hold until Max comes along. I will probably drop Starz at the end of this month (they actually have a lot of great content, but their look is off — everything seems a tad overexposed, and it’s annoying; can’t count on correct aspect ratio either). I find I’m watching almost nothing on Disney+, so it may be a candidate for dropping when the sub is up (even though it’s the only place that has So Weird, a Disney Channel show I worked on back in the day). It’s still a lot of stuff, and I don’t even feel like doing the math to see what it adds up to and how it compares to what we would be paying for cable and selected services. With new services constantly coming along, I feel like something will eventually give. It’s getting a bit out of hand.

  2. Triple Option says:

    YancySkancy wrote:
    February 21, 2020 at 7:22 pm
    We cut the cord several years ago now,…Currently, I have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Starz, CBS All Access and Criterion Channel. We just added Sundance Now this week”

    How much does that come to? What are you running those through? Are you mainly watching on tablets or portable devices? If you had to survive on just one, which would it be?

    I would’ve cut the cord a long time ago if not for my love of live sports. I had Time Warner Cable for a number of years. Things were always going up and up but I was happy about the specials they gave on either the MLB or NHL package. But then I stopped ordering when I got my first flatscreen TV and saw that only one game a night was broadcast in HD, most were standard. Then DirecTV had a special for free NFL Sunday Ticket, so I switched. What surprised me most was anytime I had a problem, how quick and pleasant they were to correct the matter and credit me for my inconvenience. I was so suspicious of them. “Oh, we’re sorry your service went out last night. How about a month free of Starz?” And then what? I have to call between 9 AM and 9:05AM or else it’ll show up on my next bill and I’ll be stuck with it for 90 days? What’s the catch?

    And then AT&T took over. All I can say is they might as well switch their blue circle logo and start using the Death Star cuz that’s pretty much what they’re all about. I have no movie channels but was able to get NBA League Pass for free this year. In my package reconfiguration, I lost Classic MTV and some CBS Sports Channel. I’m in for about $100 a month. I can get those two back for $10 extra. There might be another NBC Sports channel in there as well. I’m sure there are others but those are the ones I care about. In and of themselves I’m not sure how great they are. Like $10/month is pretty much what Amazon Prime comes out to. But the CBS channel played a lot of Western US teams you don’t always get to see and it’d be nice to catch the tail end of something if coming in late. And watching old videos would be cool to have on in the background or eating something when nothing else was on.

    I am locked in for a couple of years at a decent price. I am miffed that DirecTV does not get the Pac-12 Network. I still have a PS3, didn’t upgrade to 4 but I should be able to get MLB and stream it through that. But, DirecTV is supposed to stream for free over AT&T phones so prolly not worth seeking an outside method.

    There were a number of articles last year about the mass exodus AT&T had of their viewing customers but they continued to raise prices a couple of times in a few months and not care one iota. I’ve had Amazon in the past but let it expire. I did enjoy it but needed to reel in my entertainment expenditures. Netflix is one more price hike away from me saying peace out. I’ve seen a lot of good shows, quite a few from foreign countries, but I wish they had more movies. But I just have to be more attentive to reserving films through the library. Last thing I checked out was Wild Rose. Absolutely divine! Now, why the F- AMC can’t show that in one of their screens is beyond me?? Even when there’s no big Marvel or Star Wars film, they will only have 8 titles at a 14 screen complex. I got that stupid A-List but like last year the first qtr seems to have a ton of films I’m not only not curious enough to see but don’t want to throw good money after bad for getting in my car and aiding & abetting in destroying the earth by driving to see one. I wish Laemmle would have their own type of movie pass. Ehh, maybe not. I was thinking I don’t really need the movie channels if I go to the theaters more but damn, I won’t be able to get around live sports and finally doing away with cable/satellite.

    I don’t know what these sat & cable providers are thinking. It’s like a game of chicken. People are cutting the cord in droves and they’re not even trying to get them back. I hear of people adding more and more services like Yancy but never just saying, “screw it, it’d be just as easy to go back to cable.” It’s almost as if people took a vow not to go back. By now the providers should be able to see this and what’s sorta depressing and telling at the same time, they don’t seem to care. I think it’s bad for business, show business, all around. Not just areas that effect them personally.

  3. YancySkancy says:

    “How much does that come to? What are you running those through? Are you mainly watching on tablets or portable devices? If you had to survive on just one, which would it be?”

    Like I said, I don’t really feel like doing the math, especially since some are monthly subs and some are yearly, but quickly ballparking it — I’d say the services I listed probably average out to something like $70 per month. I assume HBO Max will be at least $14.99/month when it launches in May. I watch most everything on my television through Apple TV, except Criterion Channel, which I watch on an Amazon Firestick because Apple TV can’t do closed captioning on that channel for some reason (my hearing is fine, but I like the captions, especially when I have to keep the TV volume down when my gf is sleeping).

  4. brack says:

    I don’t miss DirecTv at all. I don’t care about things like Sunday Ticket or any other professional league subscription because I’d never feel like I was getting my money’s worth. I miss a few Viacom channels, but I don’t stay up late enough for The Daily Show anyway (I can watch it free on YouTube later). A YouTube TV subscription gives me mostly what I want from live tv, and I have Netflix, Prime, Disney+, HBO Now, CBS All Access (for now, probably canceling it soon), and Shudder. I’ll try others here and there. The freedom to drop it all at any time is great.

  5. Hcat says:

    All these streaming services are going to see a massive amount of churn each month, I worry about sustainability. When the cable channels were branding themselves with originals early in the century they could get away with having 13 episodes of The Shield or Mad Men a year. Now it seems like the streaming services have to drop something that large each month (if not weekly).

  6. Sam F says:

    @TripleOption we were at a party and this guy kept going on about AMC’s A-List like it was a “real” A list not one that you paid for. My husband isn’t into movies as much as I am (he still can’t believe that we went to the movies two days in a row last year) so I’m not sure if it’s worth especially since we just go to the local AMC on Tuesdays when there’s something to see. But I can get your point about there not being enough product. Your comment reminded me of when the first Tim Burton Batman opened. That week at the Universal Cineplex [now AMC] 18 there were only four studio blockbusters playing.

    Clark Howard, a radio money guy pretty much predicted a few years back that even if you cut the cord, there was a good chance that with all the apps you would end up paying just as much as you did for cable.

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