You Don't Need Cable to Watch the Best Shows on TV

You can watch almost all the Emmy winners online.

Adam Levy
Adam Levy
Oct 4, 2015 at 2:24PM
Consumer Goods

HBO's Veep won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. Image source:

At the 67th Emmy Awards, the critics made one thing very clear: You don't need a cable subscription to watch the best shows.

Among the big winners were HBO; the Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL) subsidiary took home 14 primetime awards out of 40 nominations. In addition, (NASDAQ:AMZN) won two primetime and three creative-arts awards. Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) won one primetime and three creative-arts awards as well.

With HBO's decision to offer its content over-the-top, 21 of the 26 primetime award winners were available via streaming services or over-the-air broadcast television. If you factor in Comedy Central's contract with Hulu to show episodes of The Daily Show and Inside Amy Schumer, all but one primetime winner -- the last season of Mad Men -- is available without cable.

Critically acclaimed television without the TV
You might think it was a fluke year, and the winners just happened to be from those networks that make their content available for streaming. But a look at the nominations will tell you otherwise. Just five of the 36 program nominations are not available over-the-air or for streaming within 24 hours of airing. Only 11 of the 75 acting nominees aren't available.

AMC and FX -- which made up the majority of non-streamable nominees -- have deals with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu to stream their new shows around the same time they come out on home video. It might take you a while to get through all the other critically acclaimed television, so you could feasibly watch almost everything the critics deem worthy without a cable subscription.

Is it worth it, though?
To get all of that programming, you'd have to subscribe to a lot of services. HBO Now, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Showtime combine to cost a minimum of $54 per month. In 2013, the FCC found that the average expanded basic cable package cost $61.63.

Keep in mind the average cable package doesn't include HBO or Showtime. What's more, if you elect to subscribe to cable only, you'll miss out on the shows Amazon and Netflix are producing, which combined to win three primetime Emmys out of 18 nominations.

It's easy to see that in this rundown you'll get the most bang for your buck by eschewing a cable subscription.

So why cable?
Despite the dominance of over-the-top and broadcast networks at this year's Emmys, almost 100 million Americans still subscribe to cable. If customers are looking for value, this simply doesn't make sense.

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There are several factors at play. The first is inertia. Until recently, you had to have a cable subscription to watch the best shows. Streaming services like Netflix didn't have enough good content to forgo cable until about four years ago. People are set in their ways, as exemplified by the paltry 1% churn rate in the cable industry.

The second factor is bundling. To keep pay-TV subscribers, multi-service operators offer bundles with Internet and phone service, which knock the marginal price of cable service below that of subscribing to all the different over-the-top services. After the promotional period ends, those prices will go way up, but operators are banking on customers' inertia.

The third factor is sports. Live sports have become the lifeblood of cable, and if you want to watch your local NBA, MLB, or NHL teams, you must subscribe to cable. As of right now, there's no legal workaround to watching your local team, but you can watch every out-of-market game through each league's respective streaming services

Finally, there's the convenience factor. Cable packages put all of these networks and services into one nice package with a unified user interface and a single bill. A hodgepodge of streaming services require a hodgepodge of bills, a bunch of different apps, and potential compatibility issues with your TV or set-top box. Those are problems companies that make set-top boxes are currently addressing, however, which significantly mitigates the convenience factor.

Cable operators should be scared as they lose their grip on television's best and most valuable programming. The only thing keeping their subscribers intact is inertia. Slowly but surely, more and more customers are cutting the cord, and every year they have fewer reasons to come back to cable.