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Is it Time to Cut the Cable?

When four of my friends and I moved into off-campus housing this spring we knew we were getting ourselves an early ticket to a grown-up’s lifestyle. We had many added responsibilities: to mow a lawn in the summer and to shovel a driveway in the winter; to furnish the entire house on a small budget; and a year full of dreadful bills to pay.

There were the expected expenses—electric, water and gas—but they weren’t the only ones. We were also charged a solid waste management fee; fire, pest and forestry charges; garbage fees; and two additional water charges (stormwater and wastewater charges). After all these unanticipated costs, we were starting to seriously rethink our decision to be fast-tracked homeowners.

But when our conversation turned to the optional budget items of Internet and television, we tried to be more selective. A high-speed Internet connection was essential, but we weren’t so sure we could justify the added cost of cable or satellite television. The expense would be another $50 each month. We had to ask ourselves, “Do we really need television?”

We decided that we didn’t. But with no subscription television or antenna access to local channels, we were completely cut off from any kind of live broadcast.

This was a kind of informal social experiment of sorts too. None of us had ever gone completely without television before.

“How will we survive?” we asked ourselves.

We soon found it was actually quite easy. With a Netflix subscription, Red Box rentals, iTunes rentals, Internet streaming, and a moderately large collection of DVDs, we missed broadcast television very little.

And we’re not the only ones who are cutting the cable either.

In August, subscriber rates declined for the first time in U.S. history are declining. Cable, satellite, and other telecom providers lost a total of 216,000 subscribing households, according to SNL Kagan, a respected media research company.
So does this mean people aren’t watching television anymore? Certainly not.
They’re just relying more on the Internet streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. In fact SNL Kagan estimates that, by the end of this year, almost 3 million households will rely on Web-based video as their primary source of television. By the end of 2011, that number is expected to reach 4.3 million.

I suspect this trend will continue to grow rapidly. Our tech-savvy generation has much higher expectations for television than our parents ever did.

We are no longer satisfied with a standard selection of channels, where broadcasts are scheduled and heavy-laden with commercials.

Our generation has an insatiable appetite for television that has very few boundaries. We want access and control over everything we watch.

Have a late night urge to watch “The Contest” episode of Seinfeld? We expect it to be streamed instantly, without commercials, on the device of our choice. The days of strictly programmed television are continuing their gradual decline.

So where will this new form of television come from, you ask? The short answer is that it will most likely come from numerous sources, many of which are already experiencing moderate success now.

Netflix is one of them. According to their most recent financial results, Netflix has over 15 million subscribers and experienced 42 percent growth in the last year. Many shows become available on Netflix after the season is complete.

Then there’s Hulu, the streaming service owned in part by television networks NBC Universal, Fox Entertainment Group, and ABC. While most of the content is free (with advertisements) and available shortly after programs air on live television, the company recently announced Hulu Plus, a premium paid version of the service set to launch in the coming months.

And undoubtedly, there will be many others vying for the video streaming market too. Apple has just released a streaming-only version of its AppleTV set-top device, and Google is set to release its much-hyped GoogleTV application-based service this fall.

Were my housemates and I trailblazers this summer by ditching standard television? Maybe a little bit. Though I must admit, we caved this fall as our favorite new shows starting coming out. We decided that we couldn’t live without Showtime’s Weeds and the upcoming season of Dexter, so we subscribed to cable. (Weeds and Dexter aren’t available on Netflix or Hulu until long after the original airdate.)

Even though we eventually gave in, our non-cable period saved us money and opened our eyes to other TV-viewing options. It was fun while it lasted but, for us, it’s worth the extra expense to stay current on the issues faced by killer-killing cops and marijuana-dealing soccer moms. If you can get by without these thrilling shows though, give it a try. You might find that it’s time to cut the cable.

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