My girlfriend and I pay $40 per month for the awkwardly named "Hulu with Live TV." We also pay $10 per month for Netflix, which seems to have all the good TV shows these days. Luckily, we occasionally use someone else’s HBO Go login, or else we’d be paying $15 a month for that, too.
At the end of the day, we’re paying $50 per month for TV, which is way cheaper than your average cable TV bill (just over $103). But this $50 doesn’t cover everything.
Hulu, for example, doesn’t have AMC, any of the Viacom networks (MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central), or BBC America. We still end up buying "season passes" to individual TV shows via iTunes that we can’t get elsewhere – around $20 a pop.
We’re still paying a lot of money for TV, especially considering that, on most nights, we’re just putting HGTV on in the background (shoutout to the Property Brothers). In an ideal world, we’d be able to pay for HGTV and the Food Network (who will be the Kids Baking Champion?) and call it a day. We don’t need over five news channels, for example, and if I could save a few bucks by dropping Fox News and MSNBC, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to pick the channels you want to pay for à la carte. This concept – that you can pick and pay for only the channels you want – has been the white whale of cord cutters for as long as cord cutting has been a thing. Current live TV streaming services like Hulu, YouTube TV, DirecTV Now, and Sling are closer to a traditional cable TV bundle without the cable box.
Why is cable so expensive?
Why are cable TV bundles so expensive in the first place? Because in order to get top-tier channels like ESPN, cable providers (and, by extension, new players like Hulu) need to accept ESPN2 and ESPN3 and maybe even ESPNU.
For all of the top 20 most watched channels, there are dozens of other second and third tier channels cable companies need to purchase along with them. That cost is passed on to you, and on July 4th, you end up watching the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest on ESPN2 in a drunken stupor. (It’s worth noting that bundling can actually make services more affordable, both inside the cable industry and elsewhere. For instance, you can sometimes score immediate savings when bundling insurance policies.)
The closest we’ve got is Sling, which came under fire for describing itself as "a la carte" despite being, at best, "more flexible than competitors" (Admittedly, not great ad copy. Sling did not immediately respond to request for comment on their "a la carte" messaging). Sling starts at $20 per month for a core group of channels, and then lets you add "Extras" of themed channels – sports, news, comedy, lifestyle, kids, etc – for $5 per month each.
If you’re a sports junkie who hates to laugh, you’ll probably find Sling a great deal. But it’s not true a la carte TV because you’re still bundling channels together – if you just want BBC World News and NBA TV, you still have to pay for all of the other news and sports channels.
Is à la carte TV realistic?
Let’s face it – even having individual TV shows together on one channel is, in itself, a bundle. Why am I paying for live HGTV if I only want to watch Property Brothers (and not the spin-offs – I’m a PB purist)?
That’s the idea behind buying season passes of individual TV shows on iTunes or Amazon, but unless you watch a very small number of TV shows every year, the costs will add up fast. Seasons tend to cost anywhere between $10 and $20 – if you watch anywhere between two and four shows regularly, you might as well pay for a streaming service. Plus, most of the hot TV shows are on Netflix or Hulu, and are either not available to buy from other services or are only available months later, at a higher price.
If you’re reading this and thinking, "Oh my goodness, cutting the cord sounds like a huge pain in the mouth, and just reading this article makes me feel like finding all of the cords I can and just connecting them to things in a massive celebration of cords," well, okay. You might be better off sticking with a cable company.
But that doesn’t mean you have to pay $100+ per month for your cable. For starters, you can call your current cable company and ask to cancel your service. Usually, they’ll be so desperate to keep you, they’ll give you a promotional rate for at least a year. This used to only work in areas where there were other cable competitors, but now with services like Hulu, it’s a lot easier to convince the service rep that you’re willing to cut the cord for good. If that doesn’t work, and there’s another cable company in your area, consider moving over to their services at a promotional rate.
Even for light TV watchers – people who follow one or two shows, plus put it on for background – the $50 we spend monthly isn’t the worst when you consider the ratio of price to hours of entertainment received. Compared, for example, to something like seeing a movie in the theaters or buying tickets to the smash Broadway hit Hamilton, TV is pretty cheap. But it still feels like we’re paying for a lot of junk in order to get at the good stuff. It feels like someone is bringing a box of groceries to my house, and out of that box, about 20% is food I want, and the rest is literally rotting cabbages.
To the cable TV providers of the world: Please help me stop paying for rotting cabbages.
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