I turn 30 this month, and it feels like I am one of the few people my age who watches pay TV and is willing to pay for it. Truth is, I hate watching shows on my computer — or worse, my phone. Give me new episodes in real-time, on a real TV. I know I’m on the wrong side of history, but I also know I’m not the only one.
You might’ve cut the cable cord long ago, and you say it’s the best thing you’ve ever done in your life. Maybe you’ve even gotten rid of your television set altogether. All entertainment viewing is done on your computer, cherry-picked show by show. For you, local news and weeknight game shows went out with answering machines and Video Ezy.
Many, many of my friends and acquaintances have done the same. They’re among the 4 million Americans who’ve ditched pay TV in the last five years for Netflix or another streaming service, or maybe use Roku, Chromecast, or Apple TV to beam their on-demand internet shows to the big screen.
Don’t get me wrong — I went without pay TV for a good chunk of the last decade, too. No physical TV, either! So what did I do? I ended up watching shows on my laptop, lying in my bed with my head propped on my pillow, navigating Hulu menus and probably worsening my already-encroaching carpal tunnel syndrome and misaligned spine.
I torrented missed episodes days later, or went on wild goose chases on popup-spewing sites for some pirated video that was thrown up by fans in China overnight. Playing link roulette on SideReel, tracking down the latest Mad Men, guilt-addled, only to watch my favourite show in 480p (or worse). It wasn’t fun.
Throw in those annoying dead pixels, wifi hiccups, open tabs or Facebook constantly beckoning, and the show-watching experience started to feel more like a chore than something I excitedly set aside 30 to 60 minutes of my day on anticipated weeknights to do.
So I wised up and got a TV. Here’s where I’ll lose you — I also signed up for a pay TV bundle. You might be saying, “I already watch all my favourite shows on a TV — without pay TV!” Sure, there are many options available to us: Google Chromecast, Apple TV, Amazon Fire. But I want to watch shows live, as episodes air for the very first time.
Sure, binge-watching online exclusives has its own satisfaction. You clear your weekend to unapologetically draw the shades, stockpile the snack food, and devote two sunups and sundowns to House of Cards season 3. And yet, there’s still something I like about watching shows the old-fashioned way. When Mr. Robot was on earlier this year, I actively looked forward to Wednesday nights, because I knew that 60 minutes of escape were awaiting me at 10 p.m. It was something I eagerly awaited all week, and I got to watch it at the same time as other viewers, checking my phone in between commercials to scroll through funny tweets and GIFs that made me feel like I was part of the fandom.
Watching shows online later is a type of asynchronous activity that just makes it less fun for me. At work the next day there’s no “What did you think of last night’s Gotham?!” around the proverbial water cooler.
Plus? Pay TV gives you options. Lots and lots of options. Maybe, too many options. For me, I like turning on the TV and being surprised at what’s on. Also, I’m lazy. I think “curation” and “customisation” just spell extra work. I don’t care about fashioning a personalised list of my recommendations on Netflix, and I have zero interest in sharing them with friends on Facebook or whatever.
With pay TV, you can crash on the couch after a long day, start channel surfing, and it’s like, “Sure, I’ll watch this woman marry a carnival ride on My Strange Addiction, why not?” Or, “Holy shit, Jumanji — I haven’t seen this in years.”
Yes, there are commercials, and yes, they can be a pain; a lot are awful. But I’m going to go out on a limb, here: I don’t mind commercials. I actually like some of them! Also, it’s not like they don’t exist on the internet. They do, and as advertisers get smarter, we’ll see even more of them in the future. Truthfully, for me, commercials are even worse online. Even if you have an ad blocker installed, sites like Hulu have found ways around it. The web is also all about instantaneous satisfaction, so commercials (oops, excuse me, “custom ad experiences“) feel more like inescapable torture, immune to clicks and skips, and less like natural breaks like they do on TV.
Don’t think I’m some paid Comcast rep or a technological philistine. There’s a lot of crap on pay TV, I agree. There are nights when I scroll through the menus of literally hundreds of channels, and wonder what the hell I’m paying for. Also, to be fair, I split my pay TV costs with two roommates. Would I be willing to pay over $US100 a month by myself just so I can have My 600 Pound Life on in the background while I make dinner? I’m not so sure.
So, what if you’re looking for a middle-ground? That is, you want to watch television on a proper set with a big screen, comfortably in your living room at a distance that won’t seer your retinas. And yet even basic streaming, nevermind Pay TV, is too expensive.
You have choices beyond all or nothing.
Nixing pay tv, whether you choose to go à la carte or lose it completely, I can understand. But at least hold onto your TV. Not your laptop. Your TV. Especially since there’s never been a better time to own a TV! Companies like Samsung and LG are rolling out high dynamic range televisions. These TVs do a better job at mimicking what we see with our naked eye, since HDR video has a wider range between the whitest whitest and the blackest blacks. If you want to see what HDR can do, glorious 8K definition.
I’m aware that complaining about pay TV comes off as spoiled and banal. And it is! We’re talking about how we choose to spend disposable income on entertainment consumption. But when it comes to TV viewing habits, there’s a lot of money at stake: The US cable and telecom industry is worth $US49 billion, and is the largest contributor to the US economy, with the energy sector coming in second at $US44 billion, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. These are trends and consumer choices worth discussing.
And people do discuss it. Ad nauseam. We get it, you think pay TV’s a ripoff. But amid all the high-and-mighty proclamations of eschewing a decades-old television model that’s denounced as — and in many ways, is — a total cash suck, there’s still a lot I like about it. I probably won’t subscribe to pay TV forever. But for now, I just want to crack open a beer and watch Jurassic Park for the twentieth time.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby