Customers, providers weigh in on cutting the cable cord

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 30, 2016

 Apple TV is one of many gadgets than connect televisions to the Internet so viewers can access streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now.

Apple TV is one of many gadgets than connect televisions to the Internet so viewers can access streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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METRO DETROIT — A while back, a patron at the Baldwin Public Library in Birmingham went to the reference desk to ask a few questions about what the library had to offer besides books.

She was considering canceling her costly cable package and hoped the library might have some entertainment options, like DVDs of movies or TV shows she could borrow. And she was in luck, because Head of Adult Services Maria Williams happened to be behind the desk that day.

“I worked for a cable company my first year out of college, and I have not had cable since I stopped working for them,” Williams explained. “It seemed too expensive for what you were getting, and I just wasn’t using it as much as I thought I should for the price.”

Williams shared with the patron how advances in technology have come a long way, and people can get plenty of tube time without subscribing to a cable package at all. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu using an Internet-connected device make it possible for media fans to get a wide range of programming for a low monthly subscription price.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that there’s technology there for this and they can use it,” Williams said.

She was scheduled to give a nearly sold-out presentation at the library March 29 on how people can ditch cable and stick to cheaper streaming options. The bonus is that viewers can select what they want to watch when they want to watch it from the services’ massive libraries. That’s a big change from the old routine of scanning the TV Guide in hopes of finding something good to watch.

But getting the right combination of programming to supplement what’s available on cable can be a delicate dance.

“We’ll talk about how to get premium cable content like HBO and Showtime. And a lot of people don’t realize how many over-the-air, high-definition channels there are now with a quality HD antenna. You can really get a quality picture, so you can still watch the news,” she said.

But live sports is the hurdle that streaming services haven’t cleared yet. To see a Detroit Tigers game, for instance, you’ll have to subscribe to Fox Sports Detroit. The same goes for the Lions, Red Wings and Pistons games too. If you want to catch a Michigan Wolverines football game, you’ll be signing on the dotted line for at least the Big Ten Network and ESPN.

“If all you want is HBO and ESPN but you don’t care about the other 500 products offered by a certain network, you should be able to do that,” Williams said. “And those channels are strategically packed to be in the more expensive tier. If you want ESPN, you have to buy the most expensive cable package.”

It’s no secret that sports channels are among the most sought-after channels on cable, and they’re packaged with similarly in-demand channels, according to Michelle Gilbert, vice president of public relations for Comcast Corp.’s Heartland Region.

“It’s an industry issue — the programmers and the providers together. We work very hard to keep costs down for customers and to provide more value for our customers,” Gilbert said. “The way it is today, the way programming is, there would not be a cost savings if you could purchase stations a la carte.”

The average family has between 15 and 20 stations they regularly watch, and purchasing those individually would add up fast and cost more than the package deal.

The idea is to shift the focus from what you’re paying to what you’re getting, Gilbert explained.

“In a lot of ways, we’re investing in technology. We want customers to get more value from the package, so there are lots of added-value features. Comcast offers a free app on mobile devices called TV Go, which lets you live stream about 100 different channels from wherever you are. That way, if you’re not at home, you have TV on the go,” she said.

She added that Comcast is developing a cloud DVR system so customers can access their DVR recordings anywhere, available later this year. But there are still the customers who don’t want to pay more for more, but rather less for less. And she said Comcast is trying to meet those needs too.

“We have our Skinny Bundles, or Internet Plus, which is basically a bare-bones service of 20 channels plus our video on demand library, which is geared towards people who want a less expensive package,” she said. “We also have our Stream product, which is in the pilot phase in Boston and Chicago. That allows our customers to watch TV live from about a dozen networks without having to have a cable box. They can access thousands of on-demand movies and shows to watch at home or away, and it gives you around 15 live-streaming stations. For Internet customers, that’s (an additional) $15 a month.”

The new efforts are Comcast’s response to the “cut the cord” movement happening around the country, with cable customers frustrated with ever-increasing bills. And while the Nielsen Co. reported in 2013 that more than 5 million households opted to go without cable in the U.S. — which was an increase from just over 2 million households in 2007 — many analysts say the no cable trend is actually slowing down.

Gilbert agreed, and said that in the fourth quarter of 2015, Comcast added 89,000 homes to its bundle cable service. That’s an eight-year high for the company.

Why? 

Along with the trend of streaming services, there’s another technology-driven feature that’s a big part of television these days — interaction.

“Live tweeting is a big part of the entertainment experience,” said Gilbert, who said many viewers don’t want to be left behind when it comes to seeing — and talking about — the latest installment of a popular series or a blunder on an award-show carpet.

“Less people are leaving, and more people are seeing the value in what we offer,” she said.

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