Why Cable TV Beats the Internet, For Now

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Are you ready to cut cable?

Probably not—yet.

That pains me to say, both as tech columnist and someone who watches enough TV to own a Snuggie. Many of us are rooting for the Internet to upend our indecent cable bills. Surely Silicon Valley’s brightest can figure out a better way to get us the stuff we want to watch. Why are we still paying cable for a “live” channel of back-to-back “Bewitched” reruns?

But after reviewing pretty much every available Internet TV service, streaming box and smart TV, I’ve yet to find a replacement that covers all the TV bases while costing less. Instead, I recommend “shaving down” your cable-and-broadband subscription and supplementing it with streaming services such as Hulu, Amazon and Netflix until this all shakes out.

There are reasons to be hopeful. I believe 2015 is the year the Internet becomes a serious alternative to cable. The PlayStation Vue service that made its debut last week breaks new ground by streaming big networks—if you’ve got Sony’s game console.

Cord-cutting is already a phenomenon among early adopters or people with narrow TV needs. But completely saying goodbye to cable doesn’t add up yet for the rest of us. Here are the four big reasons:

1) You need fast, affordable Internet…from guess who!

Getting TV over the Internet requires a download speed of at least 5 megabits per second. (Check yours at speedtest.net.)

College students and moochers may not have to worry about paying for fast Internet. But for many of us, the best deal comes from the likes of Comcast,Time Warner,AT&T or Verizon, which push TV-and-Internet bundles that make stand-alone service look pricey.

You may have more options than you realize. To check, enter your address at broadbandmap.gov and be sure to click “Show Wired.”

2) You’ll miss some popular TV.

Cable gets you accustomed to a never-ending buffet of shows. Streaming puts you on a TV diet—at least for current-season fare. Sling TV broke new ground earlier this year by streaming live channels from cable—but only about 20 of them.

So far, only PlayStation Vue can really compete with basic cable’s channel lineup. It offers between 50 and 80-plus live channels, including NBC, CBS and Fox. (Expect more channels to join soon.) But Vue is missing ABC—no “Modern Family,” no “Scandal,” no “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

My dream TV would be downloadable a la carte, with app-like channels. Yet so far, only CBS and a few other networks are available for streaming without a cable subscription. Meanwhile, Sling TV and Vue bundle many channels together, including plenty you may not care for, just like the cable you’re eager to ditch.

Another way to get the shows you want is to wait for them—potentially for a long, long time. A cable-cutter who still can’t miss being part of the water-cooler chatter would need a live streaming service like Vue or Sling TV. Hulu Plus can fill in the gaps with some of the latest shows from Fox, NBC and ABC, if you can wait a day. Netflix and Amazon Prime may require you to wait a year or more for all but original shows.

There’s hope: Broadcasters and show creators are cooking up cable-free options fast. HBO Now launches in April for the new season of “Game of Thrones.”

Roku powers lower-priced smart TVs with some of the best cable-cutting options. Photo by: Photo: Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal
3) Internet TV means juggling gadgets, too.

Assuming you can find the shows you want online, chances are you won’t find them all on one service. Or even one remote control.

Streaming services are using deals with certain channels and gadget-makers to differentiate themselves. Want ESPN? You’ll need Sling TV on a Roku or Xbox. Want Fox News? Only on Vue with a PlayStation. Want HBO Now? That requires owning an Apple TV—a total of three pieces of hardware if you want them all.

No combination of devices is as easy as just changing the channel, or choosing shows saved on the DVR.

And saving shows to watch later is another problem. Streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix give you shows on demand (albeit often last season’s). The newer live services have more limits: Sling TV only lets you find shows from the past three days—and even then only on a few channels. Vue lets you record anything, but will only store it for 28 days.

There’s hope: The Apple TV streaming device is due for a major refresh. And Roku simplifies things with a universal search tool to find shows across lots of different on-demand services.

4) All this effort may not save you money.

Now, we do the math. The average cost of the video portion of a U.S. cable bill is $80 to $90 a month (including pay-per-view movies and premium channels), according to telecom analyst Craig Moffett. Broadband Internet adds up to $50 on top of that in a bundle, he estimates. Your price may vary, especially with discounts for the first two years, but let’s say the combo costs $130.

But cutting cable and buying Internet alone is more expensive, about $60 a month. It isn’t hard to match the cost of cable with Internet streaming services—and actually end up with less TV.

Get Vue ($50 to $70, depending on your package) and HBO Now ($15) and you’re already at $125.

Alternatively, a decent package of live and on-demand content could include Sling TV ($20), HBO Now ($15), Hulu ($8) and CBS All Access ($5)—you’re up to $108. And if you still wanted live broadcast networks, you’d need to get an aerial antenna.

Cable cutting can require multiple video players, smart TVs and game consoles—and the remotes to go with them. Photo by: Photo: Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Wall Street Journal

Cable companies are onto this. Comcast is offering new customers Internet and 140-channel cable TV—including HBO—for $80 a month, with prices rising after a year.

Last year, I shaved my family’s Comcast plan from $213 a month to a $75 no-contract service called Internet Plus that includes broadband, basic local cable channels and HBO. Other cable companies have similar deals.

There’s hope: Now that Internet companies can make their own channel bundles, perhaps we’ll see some designed for specific interests that can save us money. Classic movie-lovers shouldn’t have to pay for baseball games they’ll never watch. Sports junkies who don’t care about nature documentaries shouldn’t pay for them, either. At some point, a smart company may figure out a way to make everybody happy.

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