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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Cord-Cutting Isn't About Saving Money. It's About Control

The point of cord-cutting was to save money. Pick the programming that means something to you, and jettison the rest. Then the broadcasters, streamers, and studios all sectioned off their little wells of content, and the services such as Hulu, Youtube TV, and SlingTV homogenized their offerings. Now I can actually pay less for a subscription to Spectrum than I would if I subscribed to any of the other live TV services. But as I’ve shaved, trimmed, and pruned my cords to save just a few dollars when I can, I’ve realized that it was never about saving money. It was always about control.

TV in the United States started with a kind of social contract. Broadcasters would get access to the radio waves the public owned, and all they had to do was provide content for free to viewers. “That social contract has eroded,” says David Goodfriend, founder of the nonprofit Locast and a former attorney for the White House and the FCC. He founded Locast, which provides broadcast television over the internet for a monthly donation, because he wanted to “preserve the social contract in the streaming age.” Goodfriend isn’t alone. Cord cutters, shavers, and even plenty of us who still subscribe to cable are seeking ways to maintain the social contract between us and the people who provide us TV. The cable companies, content providers, and broadcasters aren’t making it easy.


In the past three years, nearly every major content producer in the US has launched a streaming platform loaded with all of its old content and a handful of new movies and shows designed to get subscriptions. Even HGTV and its assorted properties have gotten in on the trend with Discovery+. At the same time, traditional cable companies have gotten worse and worse about allowing you to watch the content you pay for digitally. Spectrum, the second-largest cable provider in the US, has pulled its app from the Roku smart TV platform, itself the largest smart TV platform in the US. Comcast, the largest cable provider, only just made its streaming app available on Amazon’s Fire TV in December. Locast, meanwhile, works on every major set-top box platform, including Amazon, Apple, Android, and Roku. “Locast operates on the premise that broadcast still matters,” Goodfriend told me.

And Locast, which offers broadcast TV for a $5 monthly donation (which it frequently waives for those in need), isn’t the only company trying to give users a little more control. SiliconDust makes digital TV tuners that convert the signals you pull down from an antenna into video streams you can watch on your TV and can record those shows to watch later on their TV or on other devices you own. It’s been committed, for years, to giving users more control than their cable companies can provide by essentially replacing their cable box and DVR. It even briefly offered a for-profit service similar to Locast before the threat of lawsuits forced the company to shutter the service.

HDHomerun DVRs aren’t under any kind of legal threat, for now. But unlike Locast, HDHomerun DVRs aren’t exactly easy to set up and use. “It’s mostly the hardware costs,” says developer Jon Maddox. He developed an app, Channels, that can work with HDHomerun DVRs, and he’s well aware of how difficult the initial setup can be. To run HDHomerun’s app, or even Channels, you first need a network-attached storage device, and that can run at least $300, much more if you start digging into additional features. Then you have to choose what DVR you even want to invest in. There’s one for people who just want to DVR content they pull down with an antenna, and there’s one for people who want to replace their cable box, but they can only use it to replace their cable box if their cable company allows it. My cable company, Spectrum, does not.

Despite the complexity and costs, people besides myself are still doing it. “People don’t have any control over anything anymore,” says Maddox. For him, devices like HDHomerun and apps like his own Channels are about “just letting you do whatever you want with what you pay for.”

That’s why Channels ties into products like Locast or HDHomerun, to give users a more friendly cable-like interface for watching TV or recording content. It even works with traditional live TV services like YouTube and Hulu via TVEverywhere. TVEverywhere is a universally agreed-upon authentication system most cable providers and channels use to handle their content. If you log in to the Channels app with your credentials for your cable company or live TV service, then you’ll get a handful of cable channels right on the app, no CableCard or additional hardware needed.

It’s not perfect. Maddox notes that every provider authenticates a different set of channels. So you may be able to subscribe to AMC via Hulu, Sling, and Comcast, but only actually get the TVEverywhere channel with the Comcast subscription. There’s also the off chance that providers could axe TVEverywhere at some point. “We’re concerned,” Maddox admits, but he says there are much more urgent concerns—like getting an app update through the Apple App Store. “Whenever you’re relying on someone else that makes your product valuable there’s always worry.” That’s not going to stop Maddox. Channels, and HDHomerun, and even Locast were created to let you take back some control and try to watch TV how you want to, not how your provider thinks you should.

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