Chicagoans cutting the cable cord

Photo credit: Megan Dawson

The wait is over.

This fall, you can share your living room with Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa when all 522 episodes of The Simpsons are released online for your endless viewing pleasures. D’oh!

Subscribers will be able to watch all 207 hours of the uproarious cartoon family on a streamable new website called Simpsons World, set to launch in October.

That’s one more show to add to the growing list of reasons Chicago residents are “cutting the cord,” or discontinuing their traditional cable service to rely on Internet TV. Simpsons network FXX will join HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant and Apple TV in offering traditional cable programs to consumers on-demand online, allowing them to move outside the confines of appointment-based TV and start watching shows where they want, when they want.

“People don’t necessarily build their schedule — their busy lives with lots of moving pieces of friends, family and work — around being home at 8 o’clock in the evening like they used to,” said Stephanie Edgerly, an assistant professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.

“Internet TV is far more flexible,” said Steph Charaska, a 27-year-old freelance artist and Arbonne consultant from Chicago. “My schedule puts me out of the house more often than not and I am able to catch up on my shows on my own time versus the cable company’s schedule.”

Nearly a third of Chicago residents surveyed have switched from traditional cable service to Internet TV since 2007. Among residents who have not made the switch, a whopping 80 percent use an Internet TV service in addition to their traditional cable service.

Charaska uses Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and Amazon Instant instead of traditional cable TV. In fact, she never had traditional cable to begin with because of the schedule of programming and the price. “I don’t want to pay for a service that I don’t regularly use,” Charaska said. “The prices are far too high for the amount I would use it.”

In addition to flexible viewing, the switch from traditional cable to Internet TV offers consumers a cost incentive. Survey respondents who swapped said they saved $20 to $100 per month by switching to Internet TV. Popular Internet TV providers Netflix and Hulu Plus offer service for $10 and under per month, while Comcast offers basic cable service (without the addition of premium channels) for about $45 per month.

“The extra cash goes toward living expenses like rent, bills, insurance and perhaps to occasionally fund a night out,” said Charaska, who estimates she saves about $100 per month.

Cable packages are becoming more expensive because the average number of channels has increased, Edgerly said. “You’re paying more because you’re getting more channels, but the kicker is that we know that people haven’t increased the amount of channels they use.”

With Internet TV, viewers get to choose what to consume, how much to consume and at what price, Edgerly said. “I think that makes people feel like they’re spending their money more wisely because they have more choice,” she said.

The high availability of programs offered by Internet TV services allows people to watch TV liberally. Unlike traditional cable service, which airs episodes daily or weekly, Internet TV allows viewers to watch entire series at once. Binge-watching — watching two to six episodes of one show in a single sitting — has become a popular practice. One hundred percent of survey respondents said they have binge-watched Internet TV.

“This past winter, being as awful as it was, I had many binge sessions,” Charaska said. “The longest probably about 10 to 12 episodes long. House of Cards, West Wing, Charmed, and Avatar the Last Airbender are some [shows] of note.”

According to Edgerly, people like to immerse themselves deeply by binge-watching. “DVDs started to let people do that, but now you’re just seeing it on steroids with these online content producers that can say, ‘Here’s the latest thing. Here’s twelve episodes. Go,’” she said. “You just don’t see that business model in cable.”

While the low price and convenience of Internet TV has proven attractive to Chicago consumers, there are some drawbacks. For Charaska, not having the latest episodes of her favorite shows is one.

“My dissatisfaction would be the lag time between when a season is over and when it shows up on Netflix, or when the licensing runs out and one of my favorite shows gets pulled from Netflix,” Charaska said.

Like traditional cable service, sometimes you have to pay more to get more.

“When watching network TV online, there are some episodes that you have to pay extra for,” Charaska said. “I understand why, but if I had my druthers, I would love full access to all episodes from the current season.”

If traditional cable service is to survive the onslaught of competition from Internet TV providers in the future, it needs to change its approach, according to Edgerly.

“I think the way the cable industry has reacted has not necessarily been ‘let’s rethink these packages, let’s rethink how we license.’ Instead the movement has been to consolidate – to merge with other cable providers. I think financially that is making cable companies a little more stable, but I don’t think that it addresses the fundamental issue about the problem cable is facing,” Edgerly said.

“They need to be planning a different model of different packages that can speak to people who want to watch TV right away and don’t want to feel like they’re paying $100 a month for stuff they don’t watch.”

“Cable just isn’t the only game in town anymore, and they need to know that.”