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The first time I “cut the cord” was back in 1991, before the term was used as a synonym for canceling your cable TV subscription, when ABC-TV failed to renew “Twin Peaks” for a third season. I figured if television's greatest series couldn’t make it for more than two seasons, all hope was lost for the medium and I wanted no part of it. In rural southern Vermont where I lived, canceling your cable effectively meant having no TV, as broadcast signals didn’t reach into my valley. (Come to think of it, I can’t figure out for the life of me why we even had access to cable TV on our totally out-of-the-way two-mile stretch of farm road with a grand total of five houses.)
It was the era of VCRs and video stores and—gasp!—still going to the movies, so I never missed it. The only TV I wanted to see were the presidential debates and election returns, so I went to Radio Shack and bought a set of premium rabbit ears that brought in a signal strong enough so that my 7-year-old son Willie could ask, as he did, “Why is that man lying?” whenever Dick Cheney spoke during the VP debate with Joe Lieberman in the year 2000.
In the early oughts, I couldn’t help but hear and read about “The Sopranos.” Friends with cable insisted I would love it. By then, I’d become an early adopter of Netflix, back when it was still a mail-order DVD rental service. So that’s how I kept up with innovative TV programs like “The Wire” and “Weeds” and “Deadwood.” It didn’t matter much to me that I was out of sync with those watching these cable-network-only shows in real time.
Then, several years ago, I found myself in a new living situation with a partner who had a few sports-viewing addictions, including the Tour de France, horse racing and the Olympics, as well as an abiding curiosity about the new wave of well-written cable-TV shows. So for the first time in over 20 years, I sprang for cable TV, and not just basic cable, but the whole shebang, including HBO and Showtime and TiVo. Packaged along with a high-speed Internet connection, which of course I bumped up to turbo-speed, I wound up with an insane monthly bill of around $185.
For a while, it seemed worth it. What fun Maggie and I had with “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” “The Walking Dead,” “Dexter” and “Boardwalk Empire.” What fun she had with “Downton Abbey.” (I watched 10 minutes of it and ran out of the room screaming.) The Olympics were held that summer, so she had her fill of gymnastics. And then it was election season, and we were transfixed by a Barack Obama who seemingly lacked the appetite to win in the first debate, and equally so by Paul Ryan, to whom Maggie responded the way Willie had to Dick Cheney.
Still, I never quite got the hang of the TiVo. Whenever I checked it, the movie offerings on the pay channels seemed pretty lame and shelling out those big bucks seemed pointless, especially when I’d channel surf through the horror-show that comprises the regular cable lineup, making a liar out of Bruce Springsteen, whose “57 Channels (And Nothin' On)” was about 200 short of accurate. Nor have I ever come to terms with cable channels airing commercial advertisements. You may not recall, but way back at the dawn of cable TV, one of its selling points was that it was ad-free, since you were already paying for it.
Besides, I’d already discovered that the Amazon Prime subscription I had purchased for the free shipping entitled me to a fair amount of free streaming of movies and TV — hello “Justified” and “The Shield.” Then I discovered Netflix-originated streaming series like Steve Van Zandt’s “Lilyhammer” and the women’s prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black,” the ever-growing availability of smart BBC-TV series streaming on HuluPlus, and a curious thing called Apple TV.
I read up on all these options, did the math and realized that, in a sense, I could have my cake and watch it, too. While I still needed to keep my high-speed Internet service, delivered by the cable company, costing about $80 per month, with the $100 or so I saved I could subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime, occasionally rent or purchase a season of episodes from iTunes or Amazon that hadn’t yet gone into streaming circulation, and still come out ahead.
I cut the cord. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. Researchers say that approximately 2.65 million Americans canceled their cable TV subscriptions between 2008 and 2011, and that cable TV subscriptions continue their decline.
Because I’m an Apple geek, I purchased an Apple TV device, which connects your big-ass flat-screen (or, as in my case, your medium-size flat screen) to your wireless network, so that you can view anything you stream from the Internet, e.g., Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, plus whatever sits on your Apple computer, like photos, on your TV. Yowza.
Is this TV nirvana? Almost. This fall, the latest season of “Homeland” has been airing on Showtime. Because the only way to get Showtime is to have a cable TV subscription, I can only watch it when it becomes available for purchase, which probably won’t be until well into next year. So I’m left out of the water-cooler conversations about what happened last night with Carrie and Saul. I assiduously avoid reading articles about the current season of “Homeland” for fear of learning too much about it and ruining the juicy surprises that await. The same goes for my favorite commercial TV show, “The Good Wife,” on CBS. There’s a new season, I hear, but not yet for me.
But that’s all about to change. A few weeks back, HBO and CBS separately announced that, in early 2015, they will make their programming available via Internet streaming that bypasses cable TV — at a price, of course. While the exact details of how this will work are forthcoming, it’s generally expected that HBO will attempt to entice back the cord-cutting likes of me and nab those few “cord-nevers” (an industry term) with the promise of first-run movies and original series like “Olive Kitteridge” and “Game of Thrones” for between $10 and $15 per month. Presumably Showtime can’t be far behind, nor can the other TV networks.
Of course, at some point, when all premium cable stations make their offerings available online direct to subscribers, you could wind up paying as much as I did back when I had cable. So there’ll be some strategizing about the best ways to manage this new paradigm of a la carte online TV. Already I’m finding that weeks go by without me accessing Netflix or Hulu Plus — lately, I’ve reverted to an old habit of reading books, and more often than not I opt for reading rather than watching. But it’s reassuring to know that some nights, if I want to watch old episodes of the two seasons of “Twin Peaks,” they’re all available on Netflix.
And now it’s been announced that, in 2016, there’ll finally be a new, third season of “Twin Peaks” on Showtime, 25 years after the original David Lynch show offered a hint of the golden age of TV to come. And when that airs — presumably available via a Web-only subscription to Showtime — I will have come full circle to how and why I originally cut the cord, before I even knew what I was doing.
Seth Rogovoy is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” and “The Essential Klezmer.” He writes about arts and culture for a variety of publications, and is based online at The Rogovoy Report.
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