Commentary: The slow death of cable TV and why cutting the cord isn’t too painful
Can anyone remember a time when we watched cable TV, being at the mercy of what broadcasters dished up and what time a programme would air? CNA’s Crispina Robert is glad those days are well and truly over.
SINGAPORE: There was one clear moment where cable TV left a lasting memory – on the night of September 11, 2001.
I had just got home after a long day at work, toddler in tow. It was about 9pm our time and a friend from the newsroom called to say, “Switch on CNN”.
I did and for the next few hours, in between settling the toddler and organising dinner, I watched riveted as the twin towers went down in New York. It was, needless to say, the most shocking live coverage of the worse terrorist attack America was going through and I was witnessing it in my home.
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I have not watched CNN on TV for years now. That’s because I have “cut the cord” and stopped subscribing to cable TV in favour of on-demand, streaming services.
WHEN CABLE TV WAS THE CENTRE OF HOMES
In a time when there were very few options, cable TV offered us a menu based on our interests.
Depending on what you wanted in your bundle, you could pick news, lifestyle (remember TLC?), and if we had parents living with us we could pick overseas vernacular channels (like TVB or SunTV) and cartoon channels like Disney or Nickelodeon for the children.
For so long, the TV was a literally the centre of any home – there was a comforting regularity to our days.
On the weekends, I could watch Nigella Lawson licking batter off her spatula and declaring everything was “gorgeous” or Jamie Oliver drizzling an insane amount of olive oil on everything he made.
We could watch favourite shows together as a family. At the height of Game of Thrones mania, showtime was on Monday nights at 9pm.
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My older boy, a huge fan, would rush home from school, tearing through the door, still sweaty in his school uniform and we would watch each episode with relish.
We would then spend time talking about what went down, unpacking what each scene meant.
Then quite suddenly, Netflix came into my life.
With interest piqued by what my young students were telling me, I tried Netflix – and this was before it came to Singapore and the fee was less than US$10. My coffee for a week cost more than that.
Mind bogglingly, I could download whatever I wanted to watch and gasp, didn’t need to wait. I was able to watch it anywhere (on my phone, on my iPad, on the smart TV) and anytime (even on long bus rides).
Soon I was subscribing to HBO Go. Most recently, because I wanted to watch the Oscar winning film Nomadland, I didn’t think twice about parting with another S$12 or so for Disney+. In the old days, my fixed cable TV bundle would not have included the expensive movie set.
What I could get in these streaming services made me rethink how much money I had paid for cable TV. Even if I added up all these individual subscriptions, my cable TV bill was still larger and I was still confused at why a show like Pawn Stars was showing on the History Channel.
The concept of TV has changed. Content providers were sending their shows directly to the consumer and it was liberating. Clearly, this shift is not confined to Singapore, already one of the most wired countries in the world.
Data shows that the last 10 years have seen an explosion of online streaming services – Netflix, Hulu, Disney and HBO have added millions of subscribers. Disney+ said more than 100 million people have signed up since it launched its service in February this year. Local broadcaster Mediacorp has MeWatch with on-demand shows too.
To be fair to cable TV operators, they did try. Both SingTel and StarHub quickly pivoted to offering their services online and via their apps. They also tried bundling home broadband and mobile services to make the whole thing more attractive.
But all this still relied on having a box installed, making sure the system was set up and paying quite a bit upfront.
Plus good luck to you if you ran into some technical trouble – I had to help my mum with her cable subscription recently and waiting to reach a human voice was akin to waiting for a splinter to come off my toe – frustrating and painful.
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Beyond the service and the platform, it also boiled down to the content. As these streaming giants grow ever bigger, they can invest in some of the best writers, directors and actors for new, innovative shows.
Naturally, they want to go directly to their consumers instead of allowing their content to play via pay-TV models.
In April this year, Disney announced it would shut down some of its sports and movie channels in Southeast Asia. This means channels like Fox Movies and Sports will no longer be available on StarHub or SingTel. Yet another reason for cutting the cord.
COVID-19 also triggered another key thing cable TV was able to provide us: Live sports.
At the height of infections, live games stopped. Suddenly, there were no more big game days, no fans, no reason to meet on Saturdays to cheer Arsenal or Liverpool with friends over drinks and food.
It was the trigger we needed to stop hanging on. We had done so for years, even when broadcasters bid for ever higher rights – after all, in a monopoly, where else could you cry into other than your StarHub or SingTel box?
Of course, with the European Championships around the corner, it will be back to the big boys once again - except this time, you can pay for a one-time fee and watch it on mobile.
All of these changes have had an effect. At the end of last year, StarHub and SingTel had about 698,000 pay-TV subscribers, down from 962,000 subscribers in 2014. And this number is set to decrease further, say experts.
THE RISE OF NEW DILEMMAS
This is not to say we have not lost anything in cutting the cord.
Where before, watching TV was a communal activity, it is now much more of a solo endeavour. Save for the odd weekend movie night, streaming has meant that each member of the family follow their own favourite show.
No one for instance, cares for the Korean dramas I have come to enjoy and I don’t really care for the anime shows the boys like. So streaming has given us freedom and choice but in a way, it has also given us greater isolation, our faces lit up by a screen, like ships passing in the night.
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And not to mention the thoroughly bad idea of binge-watching – referred to as watching many episodes in one sitting.
Researchers are saying that avid-binge watchers are on the rise and they are sleep deprived, end up eating unhealthy snacks, and give up time to do useful, healthy things like socialise and exercise. Which is why it makes sense to put a limit on screen time.
Honestly though, in these strange pandemic times, there are no perfect options and I would rather have on-demand content any day.
Especially when staying home has become a new normal and there’s only so much baking one can tolerate.
Plus, what better way to forget about mutant strains and the inability to meet friends and family than to sink a few glorious hours into Vincenzo?
So excuse me while I dive into the latest season of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Crispina Robert is an editor at CNA Digital News where she oversees podcasts.