Un-Cutting The Cord

September 23, 2016

Like all millennials who grew up with infinite satellite channels at my beck and call, I was rudely awoken when I moved to college and discovered that cable TV is, in fact, expensive. Instantly gone were the days of “Project Runway” reruns, new episodes of “South Park” and “Rock of Love” marathons that kept me glued to the couch. (In my defense, I was a stupid teen and had exactly zero meaningful interests. Sue me.)

About a year after moving out of my parents’ house — and treating every return trip as a rare chance to watch SpongeBob — Netflix announced they’d be introducing a newfangled enterprise called “streaming” — or, as they clunkily called it then, the “Netflix Instant Queue.” My roommates and I instantly signed up for this blaring carnival of entertainment, which was actually kind of Wild West at the time: Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” into “Evil Bong” into “Dune” was standard Tuesday night fare at our house. Sadly, those days of frontier content seem over.

Netflix begat Hulu begat YouTube Movies begat HBO Go begat Amazon Prime begat Vudu, and the cycle continues still. Instead of a hundred-dollar cable bill, I pay a few services $10 a month or so for access to the same limited pool of movies I’ve already seen, or have no intention of ever starting. So while furiously scrolling through my streaming services and coming up empty yet again recently (aptly captured by Minneapolis drum god Dave King), I remembered a quickly forgotten piece of tech news from the early Obama years: over-the-air high-def TV.

Back then, I was one of those people without an HDTV, so I signed up for the ol’ government coupon for a free digital converter box that would permit me to enjoy all of my favorite local programming from the comfort of my hand-me-down 1994 tube TV. It never worked in my terrible rentals, and I plum forgot until very recently that the ability to receive local TV without paying exists. So, I went to my local Best Buy, plunked down $30 for a mid-grade antenna and hooked up my TV. Voilà — all the local programming I can handle.

(I do want to point out that I spent just a few minutes researching whether or not this would work — “Is the converter box still a thing?” No, dummy, new HDTVs have that functionality built-in. But you’d be stunned at how many articles I found describing the HD antenna as “One Amazing Trick that will Get You FREE TV for LIFE.” Imagine that: an entire young generation may never know that television didn’t always cost money.)

Now that I’m watching more TV — not streaming, but actual broadcast television — I wondered how the industry is challenged on a quantitative level by the overarching trend toward “cutting the cord,” which is a badge of pride among my generation. (The only people I knew in college who actually had cable or satellite subscriptions seemed mysteriously rich. Had they also gone to private school?) As you’d guess, millennials aren’t doing their patriotic duty to the TV industry.

nielsen-traditional-tv-weekly-viewing-trends-among-18-24-q12011-q12016-jul2016

Look at that drop — a round 10 fewer hours spent watching television among the 18-to-24-year-old demographic between 2011 and 2016. Admittedly, I have just slightly aged out of this group, but that’s a healthy proportion of the week — an entire workday has been freed up from watching TV, so what are people doing instead? Judging from the Tinder profiles around me, everybody seems to be “watching Netflix,” as though that is an actual interest a living human could have. And, for reference, 16 hours a week of TV-watching is chump change compared to the 33 hours spent by 35-to-39-year-olds, or the astronomical 51 hours a week in the 65-plus range. Though, in retirement, what else are you really going to do?

Data aside, can I vouch for the $30 investment in getting your local channels? Hell yes. Now, admittedly, the reason I decided to do it was that it would mean hot, fresh new episodes of PBS’ “Nature” whenever they air — with “Antiques Roadshow” as a close second — so maybe I am not the classical millennial to take your advice from. But I got to watch the Olympics without the usual “How can I semi-legally stream this? Mom, what’s your satellite password?” routine. I got hardcore coverage of this summer’s political conventions from PBS NewsHour, and I’ll be tuning in again for the upcoming debates.

I get to sit around with friends watching semi-pro wrestling and knife-shopping channels late at night; I get to practice my Spanish with the bizarre Saturday programming and Mexican soccer of Univision. I can even watch the local news or the late-night shows I usually only see clips of – shout-out to Colbert, who has Bruce on tonight, people — and I’m pleased to report that the robot-voice weather channel is still as soothing as it was when I was a kid.