In the 1950s, families around the nation would simultaneously crowd around their TVs to watch Ed Sullivan or whatever prime time show was on. Seems hard to imagine now, since the options are endless for what we choose to watch, when we watch, and where we watch. All of this choice has made it difficult to do something as simple as watch TV, but it also means savings for the consumer. Grab your remotes, because it's time for a primer on how to watch TV now.
The internet provides endless content, delivered on-demand—much of it for free and the rest of it with ads that are easy to skip or ignore—so it’s no surprise that audiences have started to revolt against broadcast network television (bloated with advertising) and cable network television (sold in high-priced bundles we can’t choose a la carte). The amount of content available to us is simply too great to pay for channels we’re disinterested in, and with so many digital studios like Netflix and Amazon making knockout shows that are ad-free, more and more people are being lured away. This phenomenon is known as “cord-cutting”—severing your ties with paid TV. A recent study by Digitalsmiths shows that the number of cord-cutters in North America is, in fact, growing: in 2014, 8.2% of former pay TV subscribers said they ditched their service—an increase of 1.3% over the prior year. Meanwhile, a much larger 45.2% said they reduced their cable or satellite TV service during the same time frame (a phenomenon known as “cord-shaving”).
Cable media is taking steps to stay competitive by offering services that meet consumers' needs. Comcast is offering Stream: for $15, you can stream from a dozen networks, including all broadcast networks and HBO, to any tablet or personal device and record shows for later on a DVR in the cloud. T-Mobile has just offered a service called Binge On, which lets you stream unlimited video from a list of providers without using any data from your phone’s plan. The list of Binge On partners shows just how mashed-up the state of content has become: cable networks like HBO and ESPN sit alongside online streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Vevo; independent publishers like Major League Baseball; and even streaming media devices like Slingbox.
If you’ve never heard of Slingbox, it’s a set top box developed exclusively to record local television and stream it to any device, on-demand. Slingbox was among the first to anticipate that people would want to "place-shift," or watch shows they record at home when they're not at home. Like Slingbox, TiVo is another independent company that offers place-shifting on their DVR (aptly named Roamio). Using an app on your tablet or smartphone, you can stream shows your TiVo has recorded while you're away from home and even watch live TV (I find this especially comforting when I’m traveling; I can load up movies and shows from my home DVR and feel a bit more at-home).
Cable providers have followed suit with their own offerings: the DISH Anywhere app allows DISH subscribers to watch live, recorded, or on-demand content anywhere they are, and Time Warner Cable and DIRECTV have similar services. Just note that with all of these services, not all channels are streamable—many want to drive traffic to their own apps and therefore aren't willing to let you stream their content from other services. Getting blocked by Bravo when you're jonesing for a Million Dollar Listing marathon is a reminder of how fragmented and imperfect this TV-watching experience still is.
Commercials make us cranky. We don't worry that advertising is what funds the making of these shows to begin with—our time is valuable and we want to be rid of it! TiVo’s newest all-in-one box, the TiVo Bolt, smokes commercials with its Skip Mode: one press of the magic button and you soar over the entire commercial break (because fast-forwarding through commercials was too much work!). DISH's Hopper offers the Auto Hop feature that also lets you skip commercials, and DIRECTV’s Genie will let you skip commercials 30 seconds at a time. Television networks sued DISH in 2012 when they first introduced this technology, claiming they were “inducing copyright infringement” and basically making everyone watching their shows commercial-free a lawbreaker. It didn't hold up in court, but the networks have continued to battle, refusing to give up and read the writing on the wall.
(Almost) Putting It All Together
Watching TV on your iPad—wireless, and virtually weightless—puts your clunky, cumbersome TV setup in stark contrast. As people cast off their DVD players and clunky receivers for slick soundbars and streaming media, the trend is more choice with less hardware. Everything from your TV to your gaming console to your DVR is trying to oblige: Samsung's Smart TV is packed with apps like Hulu Plus, HBO GO, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video, negating the need for an additional streaming media player. Xbox One allows you to skip back and forth between game play, live TV, and apps such as ESPN, HBO GO, and Netflix, and you can even pop in a Blu-Ray when you're not playing Fallout 4.
The TiVo Bolt no longer goes by the name DVR but instead calls itself a Unified Entertainment System because of its ability to call up local TV, cable TV, and streaming services all from one box. Aside from cool perks like commercial-skipping, the Bolt's unified search brings all of it together: search for Life of Pi, and you'll be shown all the possible places you can watch it. Would you like to record it this Thursday on Showtime? Stream it from Hulu Plus? Or rent it from Amazon Video? Assuming you subscribe to all these channels, you’d have to do a lot of searching to know it was available on all three, but TiVo Bolt brings it all together.
One of the only things that TiVo Bolt doesn’t allow you to incorporate is Apple TV. No surprise there, since Apple wants you to buy the box and use the interface that they’ve designed and built. It’s unfortunate that the lack of this one service is a big detraction from TiVo’s otherwise “unified” experience, but it's typical of Apple's stand-alone stance when it comes to their hardware. The new Apple TV has some truly exciting features that make it a worthy addition to the stack under your television: its new app store offers tons of games (using its slick new remote as a controller), and having Siri embedded inside makes it easy to call things out without typing (i.e., “Siri, find me some funny TV shows” or “Siri, show me all the movies starring Ryan Gosling”). If you do that second search (and you should), Apple TV will bring up movies available on the range of apps it supports, like Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, and FX, but unlike TiVo, it won’t show you choices from your broadcast network or cable subscription.
All of this change and choice can leave you feeling confused—I research this stuff for a living and it's tough for me to keep up with, too! At least we can take comfort in knowing that providers are listening to consumers, and all these choices mean more options and savings for all of us.
How are you watching TV now? Let me know in the comments!
Greetings! Carley Knobloch here, digital lifestyle expert. I am BEYOND thrilled to be writing for Apartment Therapy! When I'm not digitally-lifestyling it up, I'm tweaking something-or-other in my house, so I'm always trolling the ol' AT for home inspo.
I'm also a regular correspondent on the Today Show and the smart home expert for HGTV, where I help audiences understand the ever-evolving world of home technology in an easy, approachable way.
Anyhoo, why am I here, exactly? I’m on a mission to tackle those home tech headaches that make you want to rip your router out of the wall and go live in a yurt. Because it can be just… hard to navigate all this tech stuff, to keep things up and running—you know? I’m here to help.