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SMART, Channel 276, is available in both America’s Top 120 and the Welcome Pack.

Today, I finally did it! After months of family discussion and weeks of Dish-less viewing, I finally cut the cord on my Dish Network account, though not so deeply as to break it completely. I did it by switching to a package I’d used once before, but only indirectly, all to preserve a few channels that I absolutely cannot get anywhere else.

As of last week, my Dish service was the America’s Top 120+ package, a standard set of channels plus the local regional sports networks. That’s $68/month, plus $12/month for local OTA channels if desired. (As I wrote earlier, I dropped the locals months ago when I was saving just $10/month.) I also pay $7/month for the five true superstations, which Dish stopped offering over four years ago; if I ever drop them, I won’t be able to get them back. To keep the door open for this unique set of perfectly legal out-of-market stations while cutting costs, I needed a really inexpensive package.

Dish’s quiet, unpromoted answer is the Welcome Pack. I had encountered its oddball collection of channels years ago when I subscribed to Nimble TV, which was a “concierge” service that resold the Welcome Pack with New York City locals. Nimble is long gone, but Dish continues to offer the Welcome Pack, which still includes a subscriber’s actual local stations. Unlike a switch to any other core programming, self-service isn’t an option; a Dish customer service representative has to make the change. In my case, a quick online chat with a CSR fixed everything in less time than it takes for me to type this post.

The cost of my new package is $23/month, up recently from $20, but that includes the locals. To spare you the math, I’m saving $45 or $57/month, depending on whether you count the locals’ cost. The return of locals also means the return of Prime Time Anytime, where my Hopper DVR automatically records the prime-time satellite feeds of the four major OTA stations in town. And the Welcome Pack includes a surprising number of channels that aren’t included in AT120+: Bloomberg, Boomerang, Discovery Family, Hallmark, Hallmark Movies, and Oxygen.

Most of the sports and other channels I would miss are waiting for me with my Sling Blue subscription, which also includes even more channels that I wasn’t getting with AT120+. I also have access to the Watch ESPN app because of a complicated story that I keep forgetting to tell you. There’s no hope for my regional sports networks, but considering the other channels and the money savings, well I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. If something compelling comes up, I can always switch back. For now, everything looks good.

An antique clock in a glass jarAs I prepare for the short Daylight Saving weekend (pictured), I notice that over at TechHive, Jared Newman addressed a topic I mention too rarely – some TV viewers are not good candidates for cord-cutting. Newman is mostly on the mark but I think I can do better.

Let’s start with the reasons Newman gave. Your must-have channel list is too long. That deserves the top spot, because if you can’t live without channels X, Y, and Z, then you need a service or combination of services that will deliver them all. I would add that this is an opportunity for reflection whether that set of channels is really worth that much money to you.

Your DVR needs are too particular. Some over-the-top services are fussy about which channels can be recorded and for how long. Over-the-air channels require a device or service to record them. In general, I doubt this is the deal-breaker very often.

You have lots of TVs used simultaneously. This situation is made for live OTA TV. But if you rely on OTT services, they allow a finite number of streams. Then again, supplying a house with a half-dozen different shows at once is going to be pricey no matter how you go about it unless it’s with OTA antennas.

Your ISP still gives you a great TV deal. Except for short-term promotional offers, I don’t see such great bundle deals any more. Though internet service providers are important, as I’ll explain in a minute.

You fear change. That sounds harsh, but if you widen this just a little to say that you don’t want the hassle of changing how you get TV, then that’s more understandable.

I’ve got three more reasons why some households aren’t good candidates for cord-cutting. You can’t get good OTA reception. This might be the case if you live in an apartment in the basement or on the side of the building opposite the broadcast towers. It’s also true for customers living on the edge … of a TV market. Some of the OTT services will sell some of those stations in some markets, but for the full breadth of local OTA channels, you may need cable or pay-TV satellite.

Your ISP has usage caps. Although the need for them is questionable at best, usage caps are spreading to more cable-TV territories. They’re an excellent way for cable companies to generate more income while herding viewers to their own zero-rated content. If you’ll watch enough OTT TV to start bumping into those caps, it might not be worth switching.

You can’t get decent broadband. As of last summer, 34 million Americans lacked access to broadband internet service. Some of them get their TV via satellite, either pay-TV or free-to-air or both. Until that broadband gap gets filled, they’ve got no good cord-cutting alternative.

Most of the time, cord-cutting becomes a lifestyle choice. When someone gives up $5 lattes, it’s usually not because they can get them for $2.50 somewhere else. It’s usually because they pondered the question of whether the money they were spending could be used better elsewhere. A lot of cord-cutters aren’t looking for cheaper alternatives; they’re deciding what they no longer need to buy.

American Cable Association logoFor folks who built their business on serving the public for free, TV broadcasters sure are ramping up their work to get more money from viewers. A survey by the American Cable Association projected that retransmission consent fees will rise 88% by 2020 for its members.

Although it’s not automatic (the price of a product is not solely based on the price of its ingredients), cable companies typically pass along those fees as rate increases to their subscribers. Which means that folks who don’t get their local channels for free with an over-the-air antenna will be paying that much more for the privilege of watching those same channels delivered over a wire.

One could argue that local channels have become less valuable, not more, in recent years as viewership has declined. Yet the ACA could point to an operator who saw its retransmission payout rise from $8.53 per subscriber per month in December 2017 to $14.65 in January, a jump of almost 72%.

In a statement, ACA president and CEO Matt Polka said, “The corporate broadcasters are out of control. No other industry operates this way. No other sector would get away with such massive price increases in just three years.”

The subscriber rate hikes that these retransmission fees will cause should accelerate the move to cord-cutting, and some of those viewers might get too busy with Netflix or Amazon Prime to watch as much local TV. By raising the price, broadcasters might be hastening the day when their public service just doesn’t matter. Too many people will stop watching, and they might just take some cable systems down with them.

Scissors cutting a cable in front of a video screen

© paulmhill / Depositphotos

Huffington Post’s Todd Van Luling ran an article yesterday about the 5 Cable-Cutting Problems You Probably Didn’t Think About. They’re worth considering, though most of those problems could have been easily prevented. Go ahead and read that article first, then come back for the rebuttal.

1. The new live services have buffering issues. Yes, DirecTV Now and Hulu have had well-publicized problems, but Sling with its earlier launch seems to have figured that one out after its first couple of months.

2. It’s impossible to get every channel you had before. Most of the comments were about trouble with local channels because of bad over-the-air TV reception. The lesson here is not to return to cable, it’s to upgrade your OTA reception.

3. Streaming live sports can be particularly tricky. (See also #1.) The three comments were, in essence: My husband needs the local channels, We have (an OTA) antenna but it’s flaky, and We were watching the Super Bowl on Hulu when it puked. In other words, it’s another problem that would be solved mainly with a good OTA antenna.

4. Internet problems can mess with streaming. This is the most important issue of the five. If you cut the cord and want to stream over-the-top services, you need reliable internet service with decent bandwidth. You’re stuck if your internet provider fails, but that’s also true for cable viewers when their provider has problems.

5. You might have to fight your cable company. Well, yes, some cable companies are notoriously stubborn about cancelling service. Yet every month thousands of subscribers manage to complete the process.

Also, content libraries shift. What you want next month may have left Netflix, but if your heart is set on a given movie or show, buying or renting it online is still cheaper than a big cable bundle. And I think that points to another mindshift that’s helpful to a cable-cutter – even when that one program isn’t available, there’s always something else that is.

To summarize my perspective, if you want to drop pay-TV, the first order of business is to get a great OTA antenna positioned for maximum reliability and channel selection. Second is to line up really good broadband internet access. Then if you want some of those old channels, my current recommendation is Sling, which has the best price and few issues. That might be different a year from now as lineups shift and the other OTT services mature. The video disruption experiment continues.

NBC PyeongChang 2018 Olympics logoSpeaking of 1992, as I was just a few days ago, in that same winter I participated in a survey about a special cable-TV package for the Olympics that was coming up that summer. Of the possible names, I picked the Olympics Triplecast, which was what NBC went with. They thought that two million households would pay $95 or more to see three channels of live coverage from Barcelona rather than waiting for prime-time, tape-delayed Olympics programming for free. Only about 200,000 subscribers paid for what the Philadelphia Inquirer called “the biggest marketing disaster since New Coke”.

Which brings me around to the 2018 Winter Olympics, which begin in a couple of days, and how to watch. Most the options are based on one question: What parts do you want to watch, and how much are you willing to pay to watch them? Maybe that’s two questions.

The Tablo blog suggests that you might be able to get by with free over-the-air TV, especially if it’s recorded on your Tablo receiver. But NBC will be sharing Olympics coverage with some of its other pay-TV channels. As broken down by Sports Illustrated, NBC will offer 176 hours of events during the 18-day PyeongChang games, NBC Sports Network will have 369(!) hours, and USA Network and CNBC will fill in a bit with 40 and 46 hours respectively. (Ironically, NBC’s Olympics channel will have no event coverage, just a few hours a day of news and highlights.)

Among streaming services, Sling TV Blue will give you NBC Sports Network and USA for just $25/month. CNBC is part of Sling Blue’s News Extra add-on, another $5/month, so you could see whether those few events are worth it to you. DirecTV Now makes that choice for you, including all three in its most basic Live A Little package at $35/month. Ditto for YouTube TV‘s standard $35/month plan. Fubo TV has all three in its basic $45/month tier.

Then there’s Hulu. Its $40/month “Live TV experience” includes all of those networks and access to its library of TV shows and movies. Mallory Locklear of Engadget reported that Hulu Live customers will be able to build a personalized schedule of the events they care about. “For example, users selecting luge and freestyle skiing as their favorites will see coverage of those events appear up top in the Olympic Winter Games section of the Hulu UI.”

Compared to the Triplecast, today’s over-the-top streaming viewers get more coverage for less than half the cost, not even considering inflation. If I don’t need to watch the Olympics live, then recording broad swathes of NBC on my Tablo would probably work, letting me skip past the puff pieces and the sports I don’t want to watch. On the other hand, I’m really happy with my basic Sling Blue subscription, and I’ll find out just how much curling and ice hockey it will give me.