That epic Comcast cancellation customer-service call that went viral this week resonates far beyond one customer's frustration with his cable service provider. For one thing, there's the fact that Comcast is trying to have its proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable approved by the government as a merger that's in the public interest, while this call seems to confirm what opponents of the merger argue, that the company is already such a monopoly that the purchase will only make it less responsive to consumers, not more. For another thing, it's a reminder that millions of people are only too happy to "cut the cord," to drop their cable TV service in favor of the increasingly large number of Web-based streaming TV services available.
And those streaming services, in the short term at least, seem to be competing with each other to provide the highest quality content to subscribers. Just this week, Hulu Plus announced it's putting the entire 17-season library of "South Park" exclusively behind its paywall. (After season 18 starts in September, new episodes will be available the next day on Hulu's free service as well as Hulu Plus before eventually going behind the paywall.) This follows last week's Emmy nominations, which saw multiple citations for Netflix's original shows "Orange Is the New Black" and "House of Cards." And it follows April's announcement that Amazon Prime is now the exclusive home to most of HBO's library of modern-classic TV series like "The Sopranos" and "The Wire."
It seems like a great time to be a streaming subscriber, with content providers fighting to provide you with the best shows. Indeed, it's hard to pick one provider over the other, since, at this writing, there's almost no difference in cost among the three major services. Still, there are some caveats for viewers.
Each service currently costs members about $100 per year, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Amazon Prime has not only HBO but also some of the best platform adaptability; it has strong apps for pretty much any Web-connected device including Amazon's own Kindles, and its FireTV box brings Amazon as well as Netflix and Hulu to your TV screen. Prime subscribers also enjoy perks like free two-day shipping on Amazon merchandise and discounts on many products. On the other hand, much of Amazon's video library isn't part of the subscription deal but includes movies you still have to rent individually. Its HBO deal makes available classic HBO shows (as well as made-for-HBO movies, miniseries, documentaries, and stand-up comedy specials), but not current or recent seasons. (That will change later this year for Fire TV users, who'll have access to the whole library via HBO GO -- if they're HBO cable subscribers, of course.) And Amazon's original programming, besides "Alpha House" and "Betas" haven't had the success of other streaming originals.
Hulu Plus has most current TV episodes available the day after they air. It also has a lot of free, archival shows that even non-members can watch, though that seems to be diminishing all the time; now, it seems that all that's left for free viewers is highlight clips of the sort you're already passing around on YouTube. In addition to "South Park," Hulu has exclusive rights to stream back-episodes of such current network shows as "The Mindy Project," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Nashville," and "Elementary." Hulu is available on many add-on devices, including Blu-ray players and video game consoles. It's original shows aren't that noteworthy (save perhaps for Kevin Smith's movie review show "Spoilers") and its movie library is much smaller than Amazon's or Netflix's.
Netflix, of course, has such acclaimed original programming as "Orange" and "Cards." It has an extensive library of old movies and TV shows. It has the most intuitive user interface, and the one that's most helpful in recommending programming similar to shows and movies you've shown you like. And most set-top boxes include it.
While all three services are currently priced the same, there's no telling how long that will remain the case. Amazon raised its yearly fee by $20 a couple months ago, and Netflix has suggested it'll raise fees by a dollar or two per month for new users shortly. If you want to see recent theatrical movies, you could add a fourth service like Vudu, and then, pretty soon, you're talking real money. Cable bill money.
There's also the hitch that many of us get our household Internet service from our cable providers. To cut one cord, you still have to hold onto another. Away from home, you can still watch TV on your phone or tablet through an app like Comcast's Xfinity To Go, but you still have to be a cable TV subscriber to be permitted to stream shows. It seems the cable providers are going to charge you one way or another.
Meanwhile, unresolved issues loom in Washington that could affect the streaming landscape.
There's the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal, which would give Comcast control over a third of the pay-TV market, and which the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission will be mulling for several more months. There's net neutrality -- the rules that keep broadband providers from charging more for speedier bandwidth, and thereby passing the costs on to you for all the streaming video you enjoy, rules that the FCC is currently considering scrapping. The streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, are among the Web giants lobbying against the rule change, so it's not just a consumer-David-vs.-corporate-Goliath battle, but rather, a Goliath-vs.-Goliath battle.
Still, when the behemoths fight, the little people have to be careful not to get stepped on. It's very possible that the result of these battles in Washington will be tiered streaming service with no cost ceiling, just like cable is now. It would be a bitter paradox if all these new online content providers freed us from cable TV, only to remake themselves in cable's image.
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