Sunday, January 9, 2011

Cutting the Cable (TV)

My wife surprised me a little while ago by approaching ME with an idea that I had been toying with for a while but never suggested to her because I thought she'd hate it:

"Could we save money if we canceled our cable subscription and just did Netflix instead?"

Well, yes! Yes we could. With our special "we want to keep you as a customer so we'll lower your cost for 12 months" rate having just expired a decent internet connection and standard cable package was now running us about $120 a month. Ouch. The plan was then to sign up for Netflix and Hulu Plus, get a Roku player, and see how it worked out. This was a bit of a leap of faith for us, since we'd never used Netflix before, and I'd only tried Hulu online. If we stuck with it, though, we'd be keeping an additional $45 or so each month, so it was well worth it!

Technicality: Obviously we couldn't cut out the cable company entirely, since our internet connection needs to come from somewhere, and here in Utah that pretty much means Comcast. (Note to local officials: Free market only works when there are no monopolies involved and the government doesn't actively block competition.) Also, we kept the "basic" cable plan for local channels since it pretty much nulls itself out by keeping the internet "bundled" price and prevents me from buying antennas and converter boxes for all our TVs.

Though I was worried at first (mostly for my wife's sake, I already watch most of my TV on my computer anyway) I found this transition surprisingly painless and even a step up from before in many ways. I can't tell you how many times we've been browsing our Netflix recommendations and my wife has said "why would anyone need cable with all this?" Good question indeed!

I have to admit that I had no idea how much I would like Netflix. There's a TON of stuff on there, and the backlog could keep my happily watching new material till I'm 60, and I haven't even queued up a single DVD! I've especially enjoyed watching some of the material that you just don't see here in the states unless you're buying DVDs: My guilty pleasure lately has been the supremely silly BBC series Robin Hood. I had always shied away from Netflix because I never considered myself enough of a movie buff and now I'm regretting that. It's an excellent service, and it's no wonder that it's putting the brick and mortar stores out of business.

But while Netflix has been a pleasant surprise I must say that I've had the most unexpectedly disappointing experience with Hulu Plus. Going into this I thought that we'd use Hulu a lot more than Netflix, because I had been using it quite a bit on the computer to watch my weekly shows. I didn't care so much about the episode backlog (Netflix to the rescue again!) but I wanted the Plus service simply so we could actually watch our shows on the TV set, which is supposedly one of the big "Plusses" of Hulu Plus, right? Well, subscriber beware: start reading the fine print.

Hulu has a pretty good selection of shows, and prior to the switch I was happy to see a lot of my favorites would still be available. I'm not talking "popular" garbage like Glee or Desperate Housewives (gag me!) I'm much more interested in some of the more niche material like House Hunters. What I missed, though, was the little label under the show description:

We do not have the rights to make it available on TV or mobile devices at this time — we continue to work on securing these rights.

And what's more, that message is on the vast majority of their content. Essentially you can only watch on your TV (or mobile device) if you really like popular network TV series. I recognize that this is somewhat beyond Hulu's direct control, but it does make me question wether or not it's worth the subscription at all. What exactly am I paying for?

  • Commercial free episodes? Oops! Sorry! They don't offer that for any price.
  • Backlog of shows? That's nice, but Netflix handles it better. I want Hulu for new episodes.
  • Ability to play on my TV? Yeah, we covered that. This is pretty much useless to me, since the 10% or so of shows that they can actually stream to my Roku player aren't the 10% I want to see. Also, unlike Netflix very streamlined interface the Hulu channel for Roku is clunky and slow. Text is designed for HDTVs only, and simple things like seeing a list of "recommended" shows or searching takes 5 or 6 very. slow. clicks. It's nearly unusable.
  • Ability to play on mobile device? This might be nice, except it suffers from the same problem as above PLUS they don't have a player for Android devices.
Actually, that last point deserves special mention: Both Hulu and Netflix will happily stream to your iWhatever, but they're also apparently content to ignore arguably the most popular smartphone OS of the day: Android! Netflix has some lame excuse about DRM being hard and the hardware being fragmented (yet they managed Windows Phone 7 just fine, practically on launch day) and Hulu is basically ignoring the issue all together. I can't say that I want my phone to be the primary device I use for media consumption, but the option would be nice! This is an area where everyone fails equally. Wake up and get with the program, people!

I'm not sure if I'm going to cancel Hulu just yet. The subscription program is still young and I have a lot of hope that they'll improve it, and they need money to be able to do that. I will say that my wife has pretty much ignored the service, though, and if I can't see some forward momentum I will drop it within a few months.

So to sum up my experiences in giving cable the boot: Netflix is far better than expected, Hulu isn't worth your time anywhere but a computer monitor, and Comcast hasn't been missed at all!