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Digital disruption: A personal journey to cutting the cable

May 17, 2015 1 comment

We cut the cable recently. After consuming cable TV since the 1990s suddenly the scrolling acres of EPG content are no more – and guess what? We’re saving money and lives are slightly better for it.

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The issue had been bubbling away for some time. Over the past three years out of the 90+ channels Vodafone provided us via the T-Box, I had progressively found my viewing being whittled down to a core of Sky Sports rugby; the occasional movie; news and oddly, the terrestrial TV fodder based around news time.

What had changed over that period? The first crack in our relationship with cable TV was the purchase of Apple TV. I bought the little black box without really having any idea of how we would use it – but encouraged by the enthusiastic comments by a  work colleague.

Our broadband plan of the time wasn’t huge so there was a disincentive to streaming lots of movies but we had fun sharing You Tube clips from our other devices on the big screen. At the time United Video were still receiving Friday and Saturday night visits from us to choose a movie we’d all like. This was a long-standing behaviour that had begun decades earlier with video stores in the towns and cities I lived in in NZ or the UK. Using DVD stores also involved racking up a fair amount in overdue fines when the discs weren’t returned on time. But this was a familiar and well-worn end-of-week ritual for us all.

The second crack in the cable relationship was two poor decisions by our providers. One was Sky TV’s decision not to secure at any cost the rights to screen English Premier League football on Sky Sports in New Zealand, allowing Coliseum Sports to step into the gap adn offer the matches streaming over the internet. Recently Spark entered a joint venture with Coliseum to create Lightbox Sport.

The third issue was the obvious lack of investment by our provider in updating the usability of the dated EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) or any move to provide viewing on demand, rather than via a set schedule or by recording. An issue that was exacerbated when the recording option so often failed by CUTTING OFF THE LAST FIVE MINUTES of the programme (my screaming caps indicate the scars have still not healed).

As a content provider, not delivering the finale of a gripping drama or thriller is pretty much the highest order of epic failure. It was happening too often and from conversations with friends and colleagues – it was happening to everyone, not just us.

However, while Vodafone and Sky were losing us on the content side – Apple TV and Premier League Pass were demanding more data and it was right now that our relationship with Vodafone actually peaked as we doubled our data plan – but the critical point for Vodafone was that it wasn’t solely their content driving our consumption any more.

Fast forward a year from that time and our use of the “DVD store” was practically zero. Tellingly the DVD store was now diversifying about one-third of its floorspace into selling confectionary alongside DVD rentals. It didn’t solve the underlying problem however.

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The agonies of choosing a movie we all like had now moved from the DVD store shelves to the Apple TV movie selector.

The next step change was that our two youngest children were now near teenagers and also accessing and consuming video content – mostly videos about their favourite game at the time, Mindcraft or Pokemon. After a period of constantly exceeding our monthly broadband limit I realised we were at a crossroads. I could attempt to continue with a campaign of curbing video access that had limited success or… Or I could look at the behaviour of my millennial offspring and truly understand what David Bowie meant when he said that one day music would be like running water or electricity. I chose to be swept along in this deluge and cranked up our broadband package to an unlimited usage.

Enter Netflix. Not the emasculated NZ version, which has one-eighth of the content of the US version, but the teeming ocean of more than 1100 content titles of movies, TV series and documentaries all without adverts and all available in HD for $NZ15 a month. Unlimited. On demand. Available on any screen in our house any time we want it. No fixed term contract. BAM!

Our relationship with Vodafone and Sky was over before we knew it. One month into Netflix (plus Lightbox for Vikings) we realised we hadn’t watched cable that much at all. Certainly not enough to justify the $90-odd per month we were playing. The only hook cable had in us (well me) was sport outside of the EPL. For me that means the Crusaders and the All Blacks. But, in the interests of experimentation, I reckoned I could survive until the World Cup in September.

In retrospect we pulled the plug 7 days too soon. We gave back the T Box two days before Cricket World Cup semi final. Our contract still had some time to run and luckily I found I still had access to Sky Go – enabling my sporty son and I to watch the most thrilling game of cricket we’ve ever seen – in between Sky Go’s technical problems that required the equivalent of  a reboot every 20-30 minutes. After I tweeted my displeasure I found my access to SkyGo had gone completely (no doubt coincidence – I don’t think my tweets carry that much punch) and went out and purchased a Freeview box for $89 to watch the final via Prime, and also to add in access to “old style” TV just in case the need arises.

Now a couple of months into internet TV there has been more of a change than just access to a universe of amazing content. We have become very discriminating viewers. Instead of opting for the easy family viewing option of reality TV documentaries (cops; sharks; city dwellers on desert islands…) we watch science documentaries like Cosmos; even venturing into Ted talks on robotics with the boys. There are no adverts to divert our attention so we focus solidly on a good documentary. Sometimes we split off into individual screens for watching, gaming, reading, interacting and we also gather together to watch a shared movie or TV. But our screen time is now active rather than passive. And there’s been one other big change.

For the first time in a long time I have come home to a silent house where people are reading, drawing or playing. Our TV consumption has moved from the hypnotic cycle of programmes and ads to watching specific movies, TV shows and documentaries. Admittedly with compelling series like House of Cards or The Fall my wife and I will binge on two or three episodes at a time. But it is a very different viewing experience from the passive viewing of broadcast TV. A straw poll of family members was unanimous – we feel in control.

For the broadcasters this is a real challenge. Apart from product placement we are immune from TV advertising. In fact we just can’t take the barrage of yelling and flashing images when we take a peak back into broadcast TV via the Freeview box. And “TV events” now come to me only via social media, filtered – just like how I get my news.

Yes I am in the early adopter/early majority camp but this is the first light airs of massive disruption – because there’s a growing movement away from the broadcast nature of TV. And how are the large NZ media companies dealing with this right now? In what has been likened to emulating King Canute they are lawyering up and making fighting noises to maintain the status quo.

But as NBR writer Chris Keall writes: “Global mode services let you skirt old-school exclusive distribution monopolies, not bust copyright. You still pay your money, and content makers still get their slice.

As he reflects, the old model is now fundamentally broken. Which will make for interesting viewing from the consumers’ perspective.