Sunday, June 4, 2017

We & TV are in our 70's - what about that cord?
  Part 5: How a plan for streaming-only
  in 2017 became streaming-mostly

TV streaming services are not yet adequate for this!
In previous posts, I offered my belief that 2017 would be the year our household would shift to streaming TV only.

For over six months I have been experimenting with it. As of June 2017, I am comfortable stating that while the time for streaming-only TV for many is here, for many others streaming-only is not quite "ready for prime time." As I explained in Part 3 of this series the television content industry is still hung up in the past, partly because of the simplest of an American religious value - greed is good.

But let me break the issues of streaming TV down into key subjects - internet streaming technology, commercial free content providers, and the basic cable channel dilemma.

Internet Streaming Technology

You can't stream internet television content without a fixed terrestrial fast internet service. The rock bottom reliable speed needed is 10 Mbps. At least 25 Mbps is preferable.

The FCC in January 2016 issued a report finding that:
  • 10 percent of all Americans (34 million people) lack access to 25 Mbps service;
  • 6 percent of all Americans (20 million people) lack access to 10 Mbps service; and,
  • 31 percent of rural Americans (15 million people) lack access to 10 Mbps service.
The report also indicates that:
  • 10 percent of Americans have no options for 25 Mbps service;
  • 51 percent of Americans have only one option for a provider of 25 Mbps service; while only
  • 38 percent of Americans have more than one option for 25 Mbps.
The good news for streaming television is that about 90% of Americans have access to 25 Mbps service. Whether costs are reasonable is a separate issue.

We have service that exceeds 25Mbps. For our household, high speed internet is an essential unrelated to TV. So it isn't a cost of streaming TV service, unless we exceed the 1TB data streaming cap. During this experimental period, we have been streaming about four hours a night, seven days a week, plus we use the internet heavily during the day. Here is our last three months of usage according to Comcast/Xfinity:

For internet service costs to be an issue for us, we would have to use five times our current usage.

The other piece of technology needed for streaming TV is a "device" that uses streaming "apps" provided by content provider services. For us old techies, that means you need some kind of dedicated computer that can download and run the streaming software provided by services like Netflix and CBS All Access.

To start off with, most TV's you can buy today are smart TV "devices" that come with apps for streaming services (in addition to a TV tuner that you can connect to "that other cord" through which your off-the-air, cable, or satellite signal comes). Effectively these TV's are just a great big tablet.

The problem is many such TV's, Samsung for instance, probably won't have the key apps you need. In my opinion it's preposterous that Samsung TV's provide a Facebook app but has not yet provided a CBS All Access app. Who wants a 72" screen with a Facebook app. Yeah, I know, I'm old....

The hardware you will need is a specialized device (actually a dedicated use computer) that connects to the internet (via a wire or wifi) and to your TV (which is a flat panel screen) via an HDMI cable such as one of these:

Personally I agree with Battle of the TV Boxes: Android vs Apple vs Amazon vs Roku which states "Gizmodo is a big fan of the Roku box and everything it can do." But that's mostly because at last count (it changes hourly) there are Roku apps for 5,584 streaming "channels." This is, of course, irrelevant to just about 98% of the population, except for a handful of techies. My Roku screen normally displays just 9 channels:

There are good reasons one might choose an Amazon Fire TV, an Apple TV, or a Chromecast. Because these boxes are updated with new models regularly, one can't rely on old reviews. And remember Roku was the first of its kind, and operates outside the constraints of the Amazon, Apple, or Google environments.

You can get one of these devices for under $100 and they make "stick" wifi versions for under $30.

Commercial Free Content Providers

One of my primary goals when shifting to streaming was to get rid of commercials. Indeed, today you can subscribe to more than enough content commercial-free. Consider this:

Admittedly, Amazon Prime Video is shown at $0.00 because we were Amazon Prime subscribers for a year before they added video. And - this is ironic - PBS does show a commercial before and after each show.

There are other weirdness's. CBS All Access does, occasionally, insert commercials for other CBS shows but they give most subscribers live streaming access to their local CBS affiliate. Cable premium channels like HBO Showtime and Starz do the same at the beginning of each show.

Licensing restrictions prevents Hulu from carrying NBC's "The Blacklist" and requires them to show one commercial before and after episodes of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy."

Nonetheless the list above represents the streaming "commercial free" environment available on line.

With almost no exceptions everything that appears in prime time broadcast TV on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and PBS can be streamed the day after it airs. Additionally past episodes and seasons are available. And original programming not available elsewhere is offered by CBS All Access and Hulu.

The truth is that through streaming you can view without commercials thousands of episodes of both current and past TV shows, exclusive original shows, and movies. So why wouldn't you switch to all streaming, aka cut the cord?

The Basic Cable Channel Dilemma

The "basic cable channel dilemma" really is about resistance to change based on economics.

The dilemma involves so-called basic cable channels such as these top 50 from 2015 ranked by their seven-day averages in primetime total viewers: ESPN: 2.022 million,  TBS: 1.876 million,  USA: 1.850 million,  Disney: 1.784 million,  Fox News: 1.775 million,  TNT: 1.766 million,  Discovery: 1.549 million,  History: 1.536 million,  HGTV: 1.498 million,  AMC: 1.443 million,  Adult Swim: 1.307 million,  FX: 1.251 million,  Food Network: 1.129 million,  Lifetime: 1.065 million,  Nick at Nite: 1.027 million,  Syfy: 1.006 million,  ABC Family: 985,000,  A&E: 959,000,  TLC: 944,000,  ID: 891,000,  Hallmark: 881,000,  Bravo: 872,000,  Spike: 790,000,  CNN: 672,000,  Animal Planet: 652,000,  Disney Junior: 644,000,  VH1: 642,000,  TV Land: 608,000,  MTV: 606,000,  BET: 598,000,  MSNBC: 576,000,  Comedy Central: 569,000,  E!: 568,000,  National Geographic Channel: 544,000* (rounded tie),  OWN: 544,000* (rounded tie),  WETV: 523,000,  truTV: 476,000,  Lifetime Movie Network: 462,000,  Nick Jr.: 440,000,  Travel: 438,000,  GSN: 434,000,  ESPN2: 432,000,  FXX: 413,000,  Hallmark Movies: 410,000,  FS1: 406,000,  INSP: 389,000,  NBCSN: 381,000,  CNBC: 375,000,  Disney XD: 370,000,  H2: 348,000.

These and the other several hundred other "basic cable channels" offer programming that many watch.

If you a sports fan, ESPN and other sports channels are likely important to you.  Also the fact is you won't even be able to watch live games on ABC, Fox, and NBC, and sometimes on CBS. If you're into reality TV or nature shows the key channels are among those listed.

And some popular scripted programming is offered by cable channels.

If you want to "cord switch" but need basic cable channels there are varied choices that address the dilemma, most now offering a cloud DVR. In my opinion, particularly if sports is your thing, Hulu with Live TV for $39.99 plus $4.00 for commercial-free Hulu streaming should be considered first. It adds $32 a month to your commercial-free Hulu. For me, Hulu with Live TV would not give access to some cable channels offering scripted TV and I have no need for live channel streaming.

Other options include the PS Vue offering the most complete set of services available, AT&T's DirecTV Now which has advantages with your AT&T cell phone wireless service but has no DVR and limitations with regard to those boxes that deliver the signal to your TV, and YouTube TV which doesn't play well with others but is perfect if you are 100% Google/Android and the content options are adequate.

At $25 plus $5 for the cloud DVR feature, the Blue Package with Sling TV would give me the least expensive choice for a "full cord switch" with a lot of add-on options that I wouldn't use. But there is that pesky commercial skipping problem with shows like "The Amercans" and "Fargo" on FX.

You see at this time that the ability to fast forward and rewind through commercials is restricted by the complexities of network contracts with service providers on every choice out there. For instance, based on what I know at this time, FX and other Fox-owned channels simply don't allow skipping commercials on shows you've recorded to your DVR cloud. Since I don't want to revert back to the 1970's, that's a deal breaker.

Further, because of contract provisions, occasionally special event live programming is not allowed by the content producer/owner to be streamed.

Finally, that sports fan who likes to watch live - but rewind and fast forward during the game - could be frustrated because even the systems that allow FF/RW on live events are kludgy. This even varies between "devices" used to access streaming content.

You need to evaluate channel availability, cost, and convenience. I ended up staying with Dish Network because of pricing1 including a number of discount offers and a zero-cost DVR system. It meets my current needs, but that is likely to change within a year. Here is how it all ends up with my choices:

This is cheaper than obtaining TV completely through satellite/cable services, particularly with the premium cable channels, plus having a streaming subscription from Netflix. And it is mostly streaming commercial-free. We are still having to use a remote to skip through commercials in a few recorded basic cable shows each week. (See below a graphic listing the channels we receive from the basic Dish Flex Pack.)

Finally,  binge-watching a full season of a show before watching another show just doesn't mesh with our TV viewing habits. In our lifetime, the TV channels scheduled the programming from which we simply picked a show to watch in any particular period of time as explained in Part 4 of this series. So I have to schedule TV viewing along with scheduling recordings on the basic cable channels, using a schedule like this:

Click on image to see a larger version!

The above schedule format is the latest format evolution and I'm still struggling with the fine tuning. In future posts I'll address this frustrating learning process.

1Dish Network offers the least expensive  approach to content packages in the cable/satellite market today. By subscribing to their basic Flex Pack, we are not paying for local channels nor for any Disney/ESPN/ABC channels which are the most costly in any other package. Our equipment is limited to the Dish "Wally" which is a single receiver box which with an attached external hard drive functions as a DVR. Here are the cable channels in the basic Flex Pack which can be supplemented with separate add on packages as follows: Local Channels, National Action Pack (sports including ESPN), Regional Action Pack (sports),  Variety Pack (more basic cable channels),  Kid's Pack (Disney and other channels), and others: